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Description in Literature and Other Media

Studies in Intermediality (SIM) 2 Executive Editor:

Walter Bernhart, Graz Series Editors:

Lawrence Kramer, New York Hans Lund, Lund Ansgar Nünning, Gießen Werner Wolf, Graz The book series STUDIES IN INTERMEDIALITY (SIM), launched in 2006, is devoted to scholarly research in the field of Intermedia Studies and, thus, in the broadest sense, addresses all phenomena involving more than one communicative medium. More specifically, it concerns itself with the wide range of relationships established among the various media and investigates how concepts, of a more general character, find diversified manifestations and reflections in the different media. The book series is related to, and part of, the activities of the Intermediality Programme of the Humanities Faculty at the Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz/Austria. STUDIES IN INTERMEDIALITY (SIM) publishes, generally on an annual basis, theme-oriented volumes, documenting and critically assessing the scope, theory, methodology, and the disciplinary and institutional dimensions and prospects of Intermedia Studies on an international scale: conference proceedings, university lecture series, collections of scholarly essays, and, occasionally, monographs on pertinent individual topics reflecting more general issues.


in Literature and Other Media

Edited by

Werner Wolf and Walter Bernhart

Amsterdam - New York, NY 2007

Cover Illustration: Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Boulevard du Temple, Paris (c. 1838). Daguerreotype (12,9 x 16,3 cm). Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of “ISO 9706:1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents Requirements for permanence”. ISBN: 978-90-420-2310-9 ©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam – New York, NY 2007 Printed in The Netherlands


Preface .............................................................................................. vii

Introduction Werner Wolf Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation: General Features and Possibilities of Realization in Painting, Fiction and Music .................................................................................................. 1

Description in Literature and Related (Partly) Verbal Media Ansgar Nünning Towards a Typology, Poetics and History of Description in Fiction.............................................................................................91 Walter Bernhart Functions of Description in Poetry ................................................. 129 Arno Heller Description in American Nature Writing ....................................... 153 Doris Mader The Descriptive in Audio-/Radioliterature – a ‘Blind Date’? ........ 179 Klaus Rieser For Your Eyes Only: Some Thoughts on the Descriptive in Film ............................................................................................. 215

Description in Visual Media Johann Konrad Eberlein Dürer’s Apocalypse as the Origin of the Western System of Graphic Reproduction: A Contribution to the History of Descriptive Techniques in the Visual Arts ..................................... 239 Götz Pochat “Spiritualia sub metaphoris corporalium”? Description in the Visual Arts ...................................................................................... 265 Susanne Knaller Descriptive Images: Authenticity and Illusion in Early and Contemporary Photography ............................................................ 289

Description in Music Michael Walter Musical Sunrises: A Case Study of the Descriptive Potential of Instrumental Music ..................................................................... 319

Notes on Contributors ..................................................................... 337

Preface Intermediality studies in a broad sense, besides dealing with artefacts that involve more than one medium, are also concerned with phenomena that can be observed in several media and/or arts. This ‘transmedial’ perspective opens a rich mine of medial comparisons both from a systematic and a historical perspective. The present volume, the second in the series Studies in Intermediality, continues this transmedial approach which already informed the first volume, dedicated to Framing in Literature and Other Media (2006). This time the transmedial phenomenon under scrutiny is description. Description has traditionally been discussed as a monomedial and indeed monogeneric phenomenon from a decidedly monodisciplinary perspective. It is a curious fact that even within literary studies, and more precisely within narratology, description has received much less attention than, for instance, narrativity. Indeed, in a recent introduction to narratology, Monika Fludernik’s Einführung in die Erzähltheorie (2006), this lack of critical attention concerning description was again mentioned and further research in the field registered as an important desideratum. The scholarly neglect of description is all the more surprising in comparison to, e. g., much-researched narrativity, as description also constitutes a major ‘semiotic macro-mode’ or ‘macro-frame’ which by far transcends the boundaries of narrative texts, or even of literature in general. One aim of the present volume is to contribute to filling this conspicuous research lacuna and to generally rekindle critical attention to description as a major phenomenon which is in fact relevant not only to novels and short stories but also, for instance, to lyric poetry, film, the visual arts, and arguably even to music. The introductory essay in this volume therefore offers a detailed theoretical discussion of description, which is from the very start conceived of as a transmedial phenomenon applicable to more media than merely literature. The ensuing contributions are dedicated to individual media both from a theoretical and historical point of view. The volume originated from a cycle of lectures held at the University of Graz in the summer term of 2005 as a part of the Intermediality Programme of the university’s Humanities Faculty and presents a selection from the lectures given.


The publication of this book would not have been possibly without ‘pooling’ the expertise of scholars from various fields, and it is therefore the editors’ principal duty to thank the contributors to the aforementioned lecture series for their efforts. I would like to voice my thanks also on behalf of co-editor Walter Bernhart, who gave invaluable support to the enterprise both in matters of organization and of scholarly content. In addition, I would like to thank Ingrid Hable for her valuable work in preparing the manuscript in the first phase of the editing process, as well as Katharina Bantleon for taking over Ingrid Hable’s task in the decisive later phase in such an expert and enthusiastic way. Graz, July 2007

Werner Wolf


Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation General Features and Possibilities of Realization in Painting, Fiction and Music Werner Wolf Description has traditionally been viewed from a monodisciplinary and monomedial (mostly literary) perspective. This introductory essay attempts to remedy this one-sidedness from a mainly theoretical angle and paves the way for the discussion of descriptions in various media undertaken in the contributions to this volume. The first, general, part of the essay highlights the transmedial relevance of description. It presents some of the discursive contexts outside the arts and media in which description occurs and which influence the meaning of the term, before focussing on its use in literature and other media. The descriptive, like narrative, generally appears as a cognitive (macro-)frame or semiotic macro-mode which is realized in, or triggered by, concrete sign systems (texts, artefacts or parts of these) to a higher or lower degree, according to their variable relations to prototypes and their characteristic features. The transmedial nature of the descriptive permits one to locate it within a typology of semiotic macro-modes, which not only includes media and genres but also micro-level realizations since the descriptive can occur on the macro-level of entire works as well as in parts of them. The bulk of the essay’s first part is dedicated to the discussion of the characteristic features (functional, content-related and formal/presentational ‘narratemes’) of the descriptive as opposed, notably, to narrative, features that also function as triggers of the corresponding frame in the recipient’s mind. All of these reflections lead to a definition of description and serve as a basis for the second main part of the essay, i. e. a survey, by means of concrete examples and media-specific reflections, of the descriptive potential of three media: painting, fiction, and instrumental music. In conclusion, a brief comparison of these media is made on the basis of the findings of the previous discussion.


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1. Introduction: The transgeneric and transmedial relevance of description as a basic referential mode of organizing signs, and its hitherto predominantly monodisciplinary and monomedial discussion Descriptions occur in very different forms and situations, as the following three examples illustrate (the first is a part of an imaginary lecture course, the second part of an imaginary everyday conversation among music lovers, the third is taken from a literary text): Example 1: “In order to understand what ‘recursive embedding’ means, imagine one of those little, hollow dolls from Eastern European which open at their waists and contain a similar hollow doll that, in turn, contains yet another doll on a smaller scale.” Example 2: “There is a famous Mozart symphony whose name has presently escaped me. Its last movement has a simple theme which one can easily recognize if the first theme is whistled.” (whistles the notes C-D-F-E) Example 3: “If you don’t know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture.” (Carroll 1865/1970: 124; see Illustration 1)

Illustration 1: “Gryphon” from: Carroll 1865/1970: 125

These variants of description illustrate at least two basic features of the phenomenon under scrutiny: firstly, they show that the descriptive – as also, for instance, narrative – is a common macro-mode of organizing signs that can occur in everyday life as well as in various other situations, text types and genres. Secondly, they demonstrate that in

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


order to describe one can use different media: all three examples include words, but in Example 2 there is additionally some sort of music (whistling or humming the first theme of the fourth movement of Mozart’s last symphony in C major, the so-called Jupiter Symphony), while Example 3 employs an image. Thus, description appears to be not only a transgeneric but also a transmedial phenomenon, that is: a phenomenon that can occur in more than one medium. The transmedial nature of description implies notably that, in contrast to current views as epitomized by JeanMichel Adam (see 1993: 3), it goes beyond verbal media1. As ‘transmediality’ is a variant of ‘intermediality’, description is a fitting object for the kind of studies explored in the book series in which the 2 present volume appears, namely Studies in Intermediality . In fact, no one would deny that paintings can describe – perhaps even better than literary texts –, and who would not agree that film scenes can be highly descriptive or that certain musical compositions – in particular programme music and ‘symphonic poems’ – also attempt to describe? Considering the obviously transmedial nature of the descriptive, the current research situation is surprising. So far, descriptive phenomena – where they have been discussed at all3 – have almost exclu1

One may object that this is disregarding the definition of the term ‘description’, which in The New Oxford Dictionary of English is given as “a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event” (Pearsall 1998: 499). ‘Description’ seems to be restricted to verbal media, if not to scribere, ‘writing’, alone. Yet, a simple exercise in finding synonyms of ‘description’ in both English and German will prove that an exclusive focus on verbal media is certainly too narrow. After all, instead of ‘Beschreibung’ one can say ‘Schilderung’, and ‘description’ is arguably synonymous with ‘portrayal’ and ‘depiction’ (for a possible differentiation between ‘description’ and ‘depiction’ see Walton 1990: 293-304, and below, chap. 3.1; from a transmedial perspective I will, however, disregard this distinction and regard ‘description’ as including ‘depiction’). Thus, in both languages these synonyms include at least the pictorial medium in the group of potentially descriptive media (‘Schilderung’ being derived from the activity of painting shields, ‘portrayal’ from portrait painting, and ‘depiction’ from ‘pingere’, ‘to paint’).


For the definition of ‘transmediality’ as a sub-form of ‘intermediality’ see Rajewsky (2000/2003: 363, and 2002: 206) and Wolf (2002b: 18f.). However, as part of the Studies in Intermediality series, the present volume including this essay will subsequently focus on the transmedial rather than on the transgeneric nature of description.


For a critical overview of research (up to the 1990s) and the neglect of description see Lopes (1995: 8-19), and most recently Fludernik (2006: 131), who considers description a ‘lacuna’ in narratology.


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sively been considered from a monomedial perspective, with literary theory being most advanced in the field. Within literary theory, description has mostly found attention with reference to fiction, which accounts for the tendency to discuss this phenomenon not only from a monomedial but also from a monogeneric perspective. This state of affairs is all the more surprising as a closely related macro-mode of organizing signs, namely narrative, has received disproportionately more attention and has been highlighted both from a transgeneric and a decidedly intermedial or media-comparative point of view over the past few years (cf. Nünning/Nünning 2002; Ryan, ed. 2004). Description, however, seems to have escaped scholars engaged in the field of intermediality studies so far, and even within literary studies description does not appear to be a key concept. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that with the laudable exception of Ansgar Nünning’s Metzlers Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie (1998/2004) and the recent Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (see Pflugmacher 2005) a surprising number of dictionaries of literary terms do not even have an entry on description (cf. Preminger/ Brogan 1993; Hawthorn 1994; Beck/Kuester/Kuester 1998; Cuddon 1998; Murfin/Ray 2003). This unsatisfactory situation, worsened by the circulation of sometimes rather unprecise notions of the descriptive, has, however, one advantage: it provides an opportunity to survey a neglected field that is only waiting to be explored. The present volume is intended as a contribution to filling the aforementioned lacunae, thereby continuing a project which began with a cycle of lectures, held at the University of Graz in the summer term 2005 and which forms the basis of the present volume. It is informed by a perspective on description that not only continues the reflection on what description actually is, but also wants to do justice to its transmedial nature by enabling scholars from different areas and disciplines to focus on the descriptive from their particular points of view. As a result of this innovative transmedial approach, the possibilities, but also the limitations, as encountered by various media and arts in the field of description, will hopefully emerge more clearly, along with techniques and functions of description that are shared by several media or exist as typical properties of individual media. In some cases (notably film and audioliterature but to some extent also lyric poetry) the innovative power of this transmedial approach also becomes manifest in that it has led to survey territories which have hardly ever been explored before with respect to description.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


In the gestation of the present volume literary studies provided the trigger for the transmedial project undertaken in it. In view of this fact, and also of the leading state of literary research in the (alas, as yet all too limited) field of descriptive studies, it will not come as a surprise that literature is mentioned explicitly in the title of this volume (as well as in the title of the original lecture series). Nor will it surprise that in the present essay literary theory and literary examples will loom large. However, as far as this essay is concerned, literature will only provide a basis and background for the general description of typical features of the descriptive, which, in principle, could also be explained with reference to other media, for instance film. My choice of literature for the general survey of the phenomenon ‘description’ is thus not a sign of a hegemonial attitude on the part of a literary scholar but motivated in part by the pragmatic fact that this happens to be the area of my expertise, as well as by the even more important fact that research is most advanced is this field. At any rate, a conception of description will be aimed at that is open to further application and thus transcends a merely literary, let alone narratological, perspective4. As the distinctive quality of what renders a system of signs descriptive is by far not self-explanatory nor clear in research (including literary theory), a theoretical discussion of description and the descriptive is at any rate not amiss as the first part of the present essay. As description shares some elements with narrative, while at the same time often being sharply opposed to it, this alternative mode of organizing signs will in the following repeatedly be used as a point of reference. I propose to focus, firstly, on the descriptive as a mental concept or cognitive frame, secondly, on major contexts and functions of descriptions, before, thirdly, exploring some general formal features and the location of the descriptive within a typology of basic macromodes of organizing signs. I will, however, not be concerned with a typology of description, as this aspect – which has hardly ever met


Considering the transmedial character of description it is in fact not advisable to follow Bal’s claim that “[d]escriptions [...] must be placed and studied within a narratological model” (1981/1982: 105), for this leads to the idea that description is not an independent macro-mode of representation (see ibid.: 144).


Werner Wolf

with a theoretical interest5 – is dealt with in Ansgar Nünning’s contribution to this volume. Based on the findings of the first, theoretical part of this essay, the second part will give a comparative survey of the descriptive faculties and limits of three media: painting, fiction, and music. Here, however, the emphasis is only on a systematic ‘survey’, as these introductory reflections shall not anticipate the ensuing contributions written by specialists who consider various verbal and non-verbal media in much more detail and mostly in the frame of individual case studies, in particular: fiction, lyric poetry, (non-fictional) ‘nature writing’, audioliterature, film, photography, the visual arts, and music. While all contributors will also address historical aspects of descriptions, which here as elsewhere form a crucial element of interpretation, the limitations of a volume like this do unfortunately not permit extended overviews of the development of description in individual media. Historical surveys of descriptive techniques and functions – notably with reference to media other than (narrative) literature6 – must therefore remain a desideratum for future research.

2. The descriptive in general: major contexts of the descriptive as a cognitive frame, its characteristics, its location within a typology of semiotic macro-modes, media, genres and micro-level realizations, and its concretization in the recipient’s mind 2.1. The descriptive as a cognitive frame Everyone recognizes a description when seeing one, just as we do when being confronted with a narration or a specimen of any other discursive macro-mode. A glance at the following examples (Quotations 1-4) of various macro-modes of organizing signs in verbal media may activate, and thus show the existence of, this intuitive faculty quite easily: 5 The analysis of descriptive forms is in fact a remarkably neglected field of theory, for which Chatman’s rudimentary typology of descriptive variants in cinema (see 1990: chap. 3) is a rare exception. 6

For descriptions of nature in the history of English fiction see, e. g., Th. Kullmann 1995, and for description in French nineteenth-century literature see D. Kullmann 2004.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


Quotation 1: Beschreibung, im lit.wissenschaftlichen Sinn bezeichnet B. die auch als ‘Deskription’ bezeichnete Schilderung und Ausgestaltung der fiktiven Welt eines literar. Textes, in der sich die Handlung ereignet und die p Figuren agieren. Sie steuert die leserseitige p Konkretisation der erzählten Welt und trägt damit wesentlich zum p Realismus-Effekt und zur p Illusionsbildung bei. Traditionell vom p Erzähler geleistet, besteht die B. aus “potentiell ‘wertneutralen’ Informationen über die Figuren, Handlungen und die fiktive Gesellschaft” sowie aus “Anschauungsdaten, die den Figuren eine lokale und temporale deiktische Determinierung in ihrer jeweiligen [p] Sprechsituation verleihen”. (Nünning, ed. 1998/ 2004: 60)7

Quotation 2: GRAZ Kennzahl 0316 -- A -A & A PEASTON, Übersetzungs- und Dolmetschbüro, Schörgelg Nr 6 [...] A & L Beschaffungsmanagement GmbH, Eckertstr 1 [...] A & M plus Bücherläden GmbH, Hans-Sachs-G 5 [...] (Telefonbuch 2005/2006: 1)

Quotation 3: The rambler who, for old association’s sake, should trace the forsaken coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards. Here the trees, timber or fruit-bearing as the case may be, make the wayside hedges ragged by their drip and shade, their lower limbs stretching in level repose over the road, as though reclining on the insubstantial air. At one place, where Rubdon Hill is crossed, a bank slopes up to the trees on the left hand, while on the right spreads a deep and silent vale. The spot is lonely [...]. (Hardy 1887/1998: 5) 7

‘Description, in the sense used in literary studies, d. denotes the depiction and organization of the fictional world of a literary text in which the action takes place and characters act. It regulates the reader’s concretization of the narrated world and thus contributes essentially to the ‘reality effect’ as well as to the creation of aesthetic illusion. Traditionally a function of the narratorial discourse, d. consists in ‘potentially neutral (as to evaluation) information on the characters, the action and the fictional society’ as well as in ‘sensory details which provide a spatial and temporal deictic determination for the characters in their respective communicative situations.’ [My translation]


Werner Wolf

Quotation 4: At this spot, on the lowering evening of a by-gone winter’s day, there stood a man who had thus indirectly entered upon the scene from a stile hard by, and was temporarily influenced by some such feelings of being suddenly more alone than before he had emerged upon the highway. [...] He looked north and south, and mechanically prodded the ground with his walking-stick. [...] At first not a soul appeared who could enlighten him as he desired, or seemed likely to appear that night. But presently a slight noise of labouring wheels, and the steady dig of a horse’s shoe-tips became audible [...]. (Hardy 1887/1998: 5f.)

As one will doubtlessly have recognized, Quotation 3 is a description, whereas Quotation 4 is the beginning of a narration (both quotes are taken from the beginning of Thomas Hardy’s realistic novel The Woodlanders [1887]); Quotation 1, however, is a dictionary definition, while Quotation 2 is a list of references (to be more precise, it is a quotation from the 2005/2006 telephone directory of the city of Graz, Austria). What makes these modes of semiotic macro-organization so easily recognizable, though? The reason is clearly that we have an ‘intuitive’ idea of basic forms of discourse organization stored in our minds8. This points to the fact that ‘the descriptive’ – as well as narrative, argument, definition and other semiotic macro-modes – is a mental concept, or in contemporary cognitive terminology, a ‘cognitive frame’. As such, it is, of course, a mental construct, not a free-floating one, however, but one that is aimed at regulating specific forms of organizing signs in various genres and media for specific purposes. It therefore can be illustrated by prototypical examples and is recognized owing to certain typical functions and other features. Frames that correspond to prototypes have the advantage of being flexible meta-concepts that fit given phenomena more or less. Thus, ‘descriptivity’, the defining quality of the corresponding frame, is – like ‘narrativity’ – a gradable phenomenon (cf. Sternberg 1981: 76). It has ‘fuzzy’ edges but a relatively clear centre. Before describing this centre and its features, one should insert two notes. The first concerns the usefulness of maintaining a concept which has been questioned in a fundamental way. Thus, Ruth Ronen has argued that description is a theoretical construct created by “the need to define ‘the other’ of narration” and by the classificatory urge 8

This has also repeatedly been stated in research (cf. Lopes 1995: 20).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


“of assigning the representation of objects to a distinct mode of writing” (1997: 283f.) but that it is a construct which frequently cannot be found in textual reality, where both phenomena tend to overlap. Ronen therefore pleads for “giv[ing] up” the “opposition description – narrative” (ibid.: 284). This plea is, however, to be rejected for several reasons: Ronen constantly uses the concept of description herself and, moreover, discusses it in comparison to narrative. This shows that there is at least some practical need for this opposition and hence for the notion of description as one of its terms, and be it only in order to relativize it (and, one should indeed do so, for description is certainly not only theoretically opposed to narrative but also, e. g., to argument; moreover, there are cases – and media – in which narrative tends to be based on description, although the extension of description in these cases – as well as elsewhere – can, of course, vary). In addition, the fact that in textual and medial practice there are overlapping zones between the descriptive and narrative is not an argument against maintaining the concepts as such, in particular if one adopts a prototypical conceptualization that permits – and accounts for – such fuzzy edges. Moreover, Ronen approaches the topic from an exclusively narratological and monomedial perspective. From a transmedial point of view, the usefulness of the distinction ‘narrative vs. descriptive’ presents much fewer problems: thus, for instance, home-videos representing landscapes which one has toured during one’s holidays can clearly be classified as descriptive and at the same time as non-narrative, while it is also possible to use the medium ‘video’ to represent stories, a usage in which the narrative function would clearly be dominant, although a subdominant descriptive function would arguably never be completely absent. The second preliminary note refers to terminology, more specifically to theoretically desirable distinctions and their almost unavoidable fuzziness in discursive practice. When discussing description, one should in principle employ different terms in order to distinguish the abstract concept or frame from its concrete manifestations. One could, for instance, call the abstract cognitive frame ‘the descriptive’ (as opposed to ‘narrative’), while a realization of this frame in a concrete descriptive text, in illustrations etc. should be called ‘a description’ (as opposed to ‘a narration’). Yet, owing to the clumsiness of the phrase ‘the descriptive’, ‘description’ tout court will also be used, provided the reference to the frame and not merely to a concrete example is clear. As a plurality of descriptions usually also manifest fea-


Werner Wolf

tures of ‘the descriptive’, the plural ‘descriptions’ may, in addition, also be used for the explanation of general functions and features of the descriptive. 2.2. Major contexts and basic functions of the descriptive As ‘the descriptive’ is a macro-mode of organizing signs and thus a mode of communication, its features mainly derive from certain basic functions which one should therefore take into account in the first place. Functions depend on contexts and systems within which they exist, and contexts also provide the framework in which individual frames are opposed to other frames. As for description, this frame operates within contexts that include what interests us most, the arts and media, but also many others. Since these other contexts may give us valuable hints about the functions of the descriptive in literature and other media, some of them should at least be mentioned. The first two important contexts are the theory of science (Wissenschaftstheorie) and philosophy, where the term ‘description’ is used in the sub-disciplines of logic and epistemology9. In logic, description has been used as a form of definition and consequently as a form of verbal reference (basically, all of the initial Examples 1-3 could be used as illustrations of this point). According to a renowned historical dictionary of philosophy, “definitio descriptiva” has since classical antiquity been a way of defining an object by attributing a matrix of characteristic qualities to it, qualities which individually may also occur in other objects but whose combination is characteristic only of the object in question (cf. Nobis/Kaulbach 1971: 839 and with reference to the entry “Description” of the Encyclopédie, Adam 1997/2005: 81)10.

9 For earlier uses of descriptio in a religious and metaphysical sense see Nobis/ Kaulbach 1971: 838. 10

Bertrand Russell’s concept of the ‘definite description’ is another variant of the link between description and the definition of, and hence reference to, a phenomenon by mentioning defining properties. The basic idea of a ‘definite description’, as formulated in Russell’s Principia Mathematica, is “that one and only one thing of a certain sort exists and that it has a certain property” (Encyclopedia Britannica CD-Rom, s. v. “Analytic philosophy: Bertrand Russell”). For a critical view of description and its emphasis on outer accidentals as “une définition moins exacte” from a neoclassical perspective, which focusses on the general and essential, see Adam 1993: 6-9.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


In a famous passage in Wittgenstein’s Philosophische Untersuchungen (no. 109), ‘description’ is employed in a different sense, namely as part of a basically anti-metaphysical and language-centred epistemological programme, in which description is emphatically opposed to explanation11: Alle Erklärung muß fort, und nur Beschreibung an ihre Stelle treten. Und diese Beschreibung empfängt ihr Licht, d.i. ihren Zweck, von den philosophischen Problemen. Diese sind freilich keine empirischen, sondern sie werden durch eine Einsicht in das Arbeiten unserer Sprache gelöst [...]. (Wittgenstein 1953/1968: 47)12

This opposition between ‘description’ and ‘explanation’ can also be encountered in the use of ‘description’ in science and in the theory of science, as defined in the following entry on description taken from another dictionary of philosophy: Beschreibung, Deskription, geordnete Darlegung eines Sachverhaltes mit dem Zweck, eine klare und deutliche Vorstellung von ihm zu vermitteln. Die B. hält sich an die Tatsachen, an das Was und Wie, während die Erklärung auch die Ursachen zu geben versucht, das Warum und Weil. Das Verfahren der B. (deskriptive Methode), die sich in der Regel der natürlichen Sprache bedient, ist eine [...] Verfahrensweise der p Wissenschaft. (Schmidt/Schischkoff 1974: 64)13

As we can see here, description, in the sciences, and above all in the natural sciences, serves the function of identifying phenomena and of communicating information excluding explanation and evaluation14. Concerning these functions in science (as in other non-literary 11 A further employment of description in philosophy is to be found in Russell’s epistemology, where ‘description’ is used in order to set off a certain, namely indirect, second-hand way of gaining knowledge (‘knowledge by description’) as opposed to the direct means of acquiring ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ or actual experience of sense data. Ultimately, knowledge by description, in Russell’s conception, can, however, also be traced back to sense data, and thus description is nonetheless linked to empirical data, albeit indirectly so. 12

“We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language [...].” (Wittgenstein 1953/1968: 47e) 13

‘Description, ordered discussion of an issue with the purpose of transmitting a clear and distinct idea of it. D. is centred on facts, on the questions of ‘what?’ and ‘how?’, while explanation also tries to give the reasons, to answer the questions of ‘why’ and ‘wherefore?’. The method of d. (descriptive method), which, as a rule, uses natural languages, is a modus operandi of the sciences.’ [My translation]


According to Kötter/Inhetveen (1996: 7), the focus of contemporary theory of science is rather on theories of explanation than on theories of description.


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fields), Michel Beaujour has, however, rightly pointed out that description as a verbal practice has played “second fiddle to pictures of all kinds” (1981: 50) ever since techniques of pictorial reproduction have rendered illustrations in books and other print media relatively cheap and easily available. In spite of this media shift, the allegedly objective quality of description has remained a constant in scientific and other pragmatic uses, where it is regarded as a result of the collection and subsequent representation of sense data, be they directly accessible to observation or indirectly so through instruments and experiments. Yet even in this context, descriptions are usually not an end in themselves, but are implicated in the construction of models as well as in explanations and thus in a larger explanatory and argumentative frame. To some extent, this already points to the use of description in other fields, in particular to its literary use, as will be detailed below (chap. 3.2). In the humanities outside philosophy, ‘description’ is less frequently opposed to ‘explanation’ than to interpretation (see Kindt/ Müller 2003), although a clear-cut differentiation between these two notions is sometimes regarded as questionable (e. g. by Danneberg 1996). In Clifford Geertz’s notion of the so-called “thick description” (see 1973, in particular chap. 1), which has become highly influential in New Historicism and beyond, this opposition is even programmatically undermined, as “thick description” implies the attribution of cultural functions, and hence explanations, to historical data. It is time to draw an intermediate summary: so far, three basic functions of the descriptive have been established: a. description as a means of identification and reference through characteristic attributions; this attributive, referential nature of the descriptive, which points at something in the world (or at least a possible world), differentiates it from purely logical and selfreferential modes of organizing and using signs, as, e. g., in mathematical equations; b. description as a means of identifying and communicating sense data that one receives from the observation of a given reality; c. description as a means of providing objective information rather than explanations or interpretations (one has, however, to qualify this by saying that in most contexts it is recognized that description often provides the basis of subsequent explanation and interpretation).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


All of these functions refer to description as a special frame in special contexts. Are these functions also present in everyday situations? Indeed, everyday communication deserves attention, for it arguably provides the origin of, and a common denominator for, not only special discourses such as philosophy and the theory of science, but also concerning what is in focus in the present volume, namely the use of description in literature and other media. So, for what purposes do we use descriptions in everyday communication? The three examples given at the outset of the present essay may serve as initial clues: all of these examples – the Russian doll, the Mozart symphony and the Gryphon – referred to absent phenomena and served to identify them as alternatives to the respective lexemes, which, for the sake of argument, where assumed to be unknown, momentarily unavailable or not sufficiently meaningful. As the absence of these objects precluded direct identification through deixis, the reference was made through some of their qualities. Description, it appears, has obviously a referential function, but employs reference in a special way which permits the identification of the object or phenomenon that is meant. In this identificatory function the descriptive differs from narrative, which is also referential or at least suggests referentiality, without, however, typically or necessarily serving the purpose of identification. (Rather, narrative frequently either presupposes or implies the identification of relevant elements of a story through naming or provides them precisely through description.) However, description is not limited to identifying objects and does not do so through simple naming but, as a rule, through multiple attributions. This is why the first typical function of descriptions in everyday life should be formulated as indirect identification through attribution. If description, as used in everyday discourse, in this first function differs from narrative, description is quite similar to narrative in a second typical function, namely in its presentational or re-presentational function. This effect, which could also be observed in Examples 1 to 3, derives from the common referential nature of both semiotic macro-modes as means of rendering present absent or distanced phenomena15. 15

In the rare cases where narration or description are used with reference to present situations some kind of at least cognitive distance is nevertheless to be assumed (for description in these borderline cases see below).


Werner Wolf

Owing to their typically detailed quality, descriptions in everyday use tend to fulfil a further, related function, which is an intensification of (re-)presentation, and also applies to narrative, namely to provide and store experience. However, differences again appear between description and narrative in this respect: the experientiality of narrative is geared to allow the recipient to re-experience events and happenings in which a story’s character(s) is (are) involved. A typical effect of the experience of ‘good narratives’ both in everyday situations and in the arts and media is the impression of becoming part of the narrated world and becoming re-centred in storyworlds even to such an extent as to feel suspense. Successful descriptions also frequently elicit a feeling of being ‘close’ to the phenomena described, but their relationship to suspense is more indirect: descriptions can, e. g. through the creation of a certain atmosphere and the raising of concomitant expectations, contribute to suspense but in this depend on the overarching frame narrative. Descriptions alone, without such a support, cannot be suspenseful. In comparison to narrative, the experientiality of description is generally of a different nature and fulfils other functions. While (‘good’) narratives (besides other functions, such as making sense of temporal experience) often allow us to become immersed in the eventful facets of represented worlds and to witness the actions and fates of anthropomorphic beings, descriptions generally confront us with the sensory aspects, the ‘whatness’ of individual phenomena and world-facets. As stated above, these phenomena are, as a rule, absent. They are usually described in order to convey a vivid idea of them, to ‘re-present’ or evoke them to the imagination of the recipients. Description then serves as a substitute for sensory experience. Where, exceptionally, phenomena are present in the perception anyway (for instance, when an art historian explains a painting to a group of museum visitors) the experiential function of descriptions may be seen at work by making such objects appear under a fresh angle or by contributing to a ‘correct’ view. Although in these cases description does not provide experience, it may intensify it. Generally speaking, providing or intensifying as well as communicating and storing a quasi-sensory experience are facets of a very common, pragmatic function of everyday descriptions16. 16

Other facets of the representational function of description are less common, the extremest form perhaps being conjuring up. This may, e. g., apply to a mythical being which is evoked through mentioning its qualities so that the descriptor can use its power or gain power over it. Although such uses may today be obsolete to a large ex-

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


This leads us to the question as to whether description, in everyday use, is also opposed to explanation or interpretation as in the sciences. I would say, yes, at least in principle – and in this the descriptive as a mode of representation differs again from narrative: the elements of all typical stories, unlike elements of a description, must be linked to each other logically, in particular through causality and teleology; this gives meaning to them, often of an explanatory kind, at least within the story, and each ‘good’ story must in addition have a point. Such a ‘point’ can consist in broadening our knowledge of what is possible, usually in spite of contrary expectations (in stories of the type “imagine what happened to me...”), or it can consist in an illustration of some general idea or in the explanation, how a present state has come about. In all of these cases, narrating, the construction of meaning and indeed explanations are closely related. Stories do not only typically provide explanations for internal constituents (e. g. why someone has died) but also frequently serve as explanations of external issues or ‘points’. With descriptions this is less frequently the case: the point of a good description is not to explain something but to inform us about the existence of something and its specific appearance and quality, in short: to represent something vividly (anschaulich). To this extent, description is opposed to explanation and interpretation not only in the theory of science but in everyday use, too. Thus, the main functions of the descriptive as a means of representation in everyday discourse are quite similar to the previously summarized functions in science and philosophy: 1. to refer to phenomena and to permit their identification through the attribution of, in particular, sensory qualities; 2. to provide representations that permit us to imagine or to reexperience these phenomena; 3. to provide facts about these phenomena rather than interpretations. To what extent is what has been said about everyday descriptions relevant to descriptions in literature and other media, including rhetorical description, a field in which the earliest reflections on description are documented (see Adam 1993: 26-29; Halsall 1994)? My contention is that most of the basic functions just discussed are also tent, they nevertheless indicate that the representational function may be linked to further purposes.


Werner Wolf

relevant for this context, which is to a large extent an aesthetic one. However, the third function must be somewhat modified. In addition, when speaking of aesthetic and medial representations, we must take into account fictionality, which so far has not played a role in our reflections. Thus, the following general functions of the descriptive in literature and other media can be noted: 1. The referential function: the first function, which can easily be linked to what has been said about description in non-aesthetic contexts, is the referential function. It implies either the identification of a real phenomenon (in particular if it is well-known) or the construction of fictitious phenomena within artistic or medial possible worlds. Both tasks are achieved through the attribution of usually a plurality of qualities to concrete phenomena. This referential function includes mimesis but is not restricted to it, as clearly non-mimetic, e. g. fantastic fictional objects, can also be referred to in the mode of description. 2. The representational and experiential function: the second function, which can also be related to what has been detailed before, is the vivid representation (in classical rhetoric, a representation showing ‘energeia’ as well as ‘enargeia’17), e. g. the persuasive and convincing visualization of a phenomenon18. The experientiality implied in this vividness in many cases also elicits aesthetic illusion19: the impression of being re-centred in the space created by the described object and of experiencing it as a possible, even plausible world, in spite of the fact that one retains a residual consciousness of its being ‘made up’. 3. The pseudo-objectivizing and interpretive function: The third function which was mentioned for the contexts discussed above and which is also valid for many everyday descriptions, namely to 17

Both terms are frequently confused with each other but have slightly different meanings: while ‘energeia’ emphasizes rhetorical persuasio through Anschaulichkeit [‘vivid representation’], ‘enargeia’ focuses on visualization through a plethora of details (see Rippl 2005: 68 and 70, and Bernhart in this volume). 18

Visualization was already stressed by Cicero as an effect of descriptio (see Halsall 1994: 550); for the role of description (‘enargeia’/’energeia’ and ‘evidentia’) in classical rhetoric see Beaujour 1981: 28-33.


This is a consequence of a successful concretization of the object described (cf. also the article on description quoted above in Quotation 1 [Nünning, ed. 1998/2004: 60]); for more details on aesthetic illusion see Wolf 1993 and 2004a.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


provide more or less objective facts rather than interpretations, is debatable in the context of the arts and media. Of course, description here also informs the recipients about elements of the represented worlds, about things that appear ‘to be the case’ there. Yet what may furthermore be said about the ‘objectivity’ of descriptions in this context is at best that many of them not only strengthen the effect of aesthetic illusion as a quasi-experience of a reality, but elicit the impression that the possible world in question refers to the reality as we believe to know it. In other words, the aura of objectivity created by what must be termed the ‘pseudo-objectivizing function’ of many descriptions in the arts and media can trigger a referential sub-form of aesthetic illusion, namely a ‘reality effect’ (effet de réel, see Barthes 1968)20. Otherwise, the idea that description provides objective data would clearly be untenable with respect to literature and other medial representations. This is not only the case because of the general problematics of ‘objectivity’, which occur in other contexts as well21, but also, and in particular, since artefacts are usually considered to be meaningful constructs. Michael Riffaterre was most outspoken about this problem. He said with reference to “literary description” that its “primary function [...] is not to make the reader see something [...] not to present an external reality [...] but to dictate an interpretation” (1981: 125). While Riffaterre’s downgrading of “making the reader see something” is arguably too radical (not only because in English, the very term ‘seeing’ can also mean ‘understanding’, but also, and above all, since it runs counter to the experiential function of the descriptive), his idea is basically convincing. For the nature of artefacts and texts as intentional constructs renders it highly probable that even the descriptive construction or representation of the ‘givens’, for instance of a narrative possible world, is not an ‘innocent’ business but serves a purpose (like the narration of events) and that description has its 20

This effect, which Barthes (1968) – in the tradition of classical antiquity (see Halsall 1994: 552) – linked especially to description, may have something to do with the frequent focus of descriptions on natural phenomena (e. g. landscapes or physiognomies), which suggest a ‘just being objectively there’. 21

Cf. also the well-known findings of cognitive psychology that there is no perception without interpretive application of cognitive frames, which points to the fact that there is no rendering of perception in description without previous, if unwitting, interpretation either.


Werner Wolf

place in it – and is hence implicated in the construction of meaning of the artefact or text as a whole as well as in guiding various responses of the recipients22. We will come back to the functional issue of description not only as an information on seeming ‘facts’, but also as a contribution to the overall meaning of artefacts in the chapters dedicated to individual medial examples. 2.3. The location of the descriptive/description within a typology of semiotic macro-modes/macro-frames, media, genres and microlevel realizations For the time being, another problem must be discussed, namely the question of where to locate descriptions and the descriptive in a typology of genres, media and semiotic (macro-)modes. This problem is particularly thorny since the descriptive can inform an entire work or artefact but also only parts of one that may not be predominantly descriptive in itself and may contain other semiotic frames. Examples of the former case in the visual media would be still lives, genre scenes, land- or cityscapes (see, e. g., the cover illustration to this volume, a daguerreotype by Louis J. M. Daguerre of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris) or the rare case of a Bildbeschreibung (the description or ‘ekphrasis’ of an artefact as an independent text). Perhaps the best way to systematize what is under discussion here is to start from the open category of basic semiotic macro-modes or what one may call, with an eye to their top-level importance, ‘macroframes’. ‘The descriptive’ with its defining, gradable quality of descriptivity is on this abstract level opposed to ‘narrative’, ‘the argumentative’, etc. Fludernik, in an illuminating essay (2000), named this top level the level of “macrogenres” (282). These macro-modes are, however, highly abstract and require for their realization both media and systematic as well as historical genres (be they general genres or sub-genres). The fact that the descriptive, like all macro-frames, can be realized in more than one medium shows that these macro-frames are to a large extent mediaindependent (although, as we will see when comparing fiction, paint22

In the light of this well-known critical position it is hard to understand why Ronen insists on bashing theoreticians of description for maintaining a largely chimerical opposition of ‘non-meaningful description’ vs. ‘meaningful narration’ (see Ronen 1997: 280).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


ing and music with reference to their respective descriptive potentials, the conditions of each medium do have an influence). As for the genres, this level refers, firstly, to general genres (which sometimes overlap with media23) such as, within the verbal media, drama (as typically not narrator-transmitted) or narrations of the type novel, epic and short story (as typically narrator-transmitted) and within the pictorial media, for instance, religious painting, historical painting, still life, etc. As a rule, the macro-modes, or more precisely, their occurrence as a dominant, is a defining feature both of general genres and subgenres. Thus, narrative is dominant, within the verbal media, in the general genres novel and drama as well as in sub-genres such as gothic fiction or comedy, and within the pictorial media, this is to a certain extent true, for instance, of the genre history painting. Similarly, the argumentative prevails in verbal genres such as the philosophical essay, the scientific treatise, etc., and the descriptive is dominant in verbal Bildbeschreibung as well as in painterly still lives, the difference being here that still life forms a well-known general genre within the pictorial media, while Bildbeschreibung is much less frequent as a verbal genre of its own24. In fact, in the verbal media, the descriptive tends to occur not as a defining, dominant quality on the level of general genres or sub-genres but rather on the typologically lower micro-level of individual artefacts, where it often appears as a subdominant frame alongside other frames. This occurrence on a micro-level is exemplified in the above Quotation 3 from Hardy’s The Woodlanders, where an initial description is followed by a narrative passage. Both frames are here part of a novel, hence of a general genre in which narrative is the dominant frame (and therefore also dominant on the micro-level, where it is mixed with other frames such as the descriptive or the argumentative). In sum: the descriptive is a semiotic macro-mode or macro-frame that can be realized by several media and may occur, within individual media, in general genres as well as in sub-genres. In these genres, 23

See Fludernik 2000: 282, who subsumes under “genres/text types” “novel, drama, film”. 24

Nevertheless it is erroneous – and indicative of the pitfalls of an exclusively literature-centred approach to what is basically a transmedial phenomenon – to claim that description is not “an independent type of text [or rather a macro-frame that typically informs independent genres and text types], but rather an integrative component of the (usually narrative) text in which it appears” (Bal 1981/1982: 144).


Werner Wolf

it can be the dominant, then informing the macro-level of the genre or of the respective works. It can, however, also occur on the micro-level of texts and artefacts, in which case it may be only present as one subdominant frame among others. In this dual potential of being located on two different levels, on a higher, macro- as well as on a lower, micro-level, description in principle resembles other semiotic macro-modes, in particular narrative (although narrative occurs more frequently on the higher level). With reference to a typology of verbal texts, this potential recursivity of frames has already been proposed with particular clarity by Virtanen (1992)25 and in similar terms by Fludernik (2000). For our purpose of a transmedial typology these findings can be adapted and the resulting typological possibilities be visualized as in Figure 1 (cf. also Wolf 2003: 181); one should, however, emphasize that in Figure 1 all registers (1-5) show only examples and hence do not represent the full repertoire of options.


Virtanen, from a monomedial focus on verbal media, gives description the status of a “discourse type” or “text type” (according to its location on the primary or on the secondary level) together with narrative, instructive, expository and argumentative (1992: 299). In spite of the fact that Virtanen is not concerned with a transmedial typology of semiotic macro-modes but only with a text typology, his conceptualization can be adapted to fields beyond verbal texts.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


1) semiotic macro-modes (cognitive macroframes)

the descriptive




2) media in which the macro-modes can be realized (examples)

verbal media, pictorial medium, film, music (?)

verbal media, pictorial medium, film, music (?)

verbal media, pictorial medium

3) examples of (sub-) genres in which the macro-modes/ -frames can be realized on the macro-level

still life, ekphrasis, …

soap opera, (sentimental) novel, …

philosophical essay, scientific treatise, …

4) examples of the use of macromodes/-frames on the micro- level of individual genres together with other frames (the sub-dominant modes in brackets)

5) verbal examples of macro-modes on the micro-level

the descr.

descriptive passages in an ekphrasis

(the arg.)

argumentative passages in an ekphrasis


(the descr.)

narrative passages in a novel

descriptions in a novel

(the arg.)

the arg.


narratorial explanations in a novel

the main argument in a treatise

narrative illustrations in a treaties

Figure 1: The descriptive in the context of a typology of semiotic macro-modes, media and genres


Werner Wolf

2.4. Content-related and formal/presentational characteristics and stimuli of the descriptive in literature and other media (exemplified with verbal texts) After the preceding introductory discussion of the descriptive in literature and other media in terms of its relationship to occurrences outside this medial field as well as in terms of basic general functions and its typological location in a matrix of semiotic macro-modes, media, genres and micro-level occurrences, it is now time to deal in more detail with the following questions: What are the typical content-related and formal or presentational features of descriptions as opposed to narrations or narrative elements within a given work? And by what means is the descriptive frame activated in the recipient’s mind? Since it would lead too far to treat these questions for all media and possible genres and since the theory of description is most advanced in narratology, these questions shall be discussed in the following predominantly with reference to literature, or at least to verbal texts. This applies, however, only to the extent that such texts contain general typical features of the descriptive (specific characteristics that are only relevant to verbal media will be treated in a separate sub-chapter). As mentioned earlier, the descriptive is a gradable quality; therefore a prototypical approach will be adopted in the outlining of its features. In that, I shall first focus on the most typical and central characteristics of descriptions (mostly in comparison with narrative as the nearest neighbouring frame), before discussing some more marginal features. An obvious possibility of approaching the characteristics of descriptions is answering the following question: are there typical contents or objects of description in literature and other media – in comparison to typical contents of narrations? There are two respects in which this question can immediately be answered with reference to literature as well as to other media: Firstly, objects of description, like the content of narratives, can be either real or fictional, and if fictional, as said above, mimetic or non-mimetic (e. g. fantastic) without any typical bias: a mythical non-mimetic object such as a gryphon can be described in a similar way as a real bird26.

26 In literature and other media, the fictional in fact forms a frequent extension of the realm of possible objects of description.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


Secondly, descriptions, again like narratives, focus on concrete phenomena rather than on abstract notions: thus, in literature, architecture as a discipline would not be a fit object of description, but an architect or a castle could well be one. In a third respect there is a perhaps natural tendency to further qualify typical objects of description as opposed to narrative. Seymour Chatman’s typology of “necessary components” (1978: 19) of narratives comes to mind here: He differentiates between dynamic “events” and static “existents”. ‘Existents’ comprise spatial and temporal ‘settings’ as well as ‘characters’, while ‘events’ comprise ‘actions’ (“in which an existent is the agent of the event”) and ‘happenings’ (“where the existent is the patient” [ibid.: 32]). Now, it seems natural to say that Chatman’s ‘existents’ seem to be ‘the proper stuff’ of description. One may even further claim that objects of descriptions are, of course, not only static but also spatial (cf. Genette 1969: 59), while contents of narratives are dynamic and temporal. At first sight, this appears to be largely acceptable, and many, in particular literary, scholars would no doubt agree. On further reflection, however, one must make important reservations. Static, spatial existents as the ‘proper stuff of description’ is at best a formula to account for the most frequent and to that extent prototypical cases in some media, in particular literature (where narrative is an alternative frame that covers most of dynamic, temporal events) and the pictorial medium (whose static signifiers unfolding in space rather than in time privilege static, spatial existents as their signifieds and referents). As a general claim, this qualification is, however, an oversimplification and must be rejected: for descriptions (even in verbal art) can also apply to acoustic phenomena, as will be discussed with reference to the question of descriptive music. Following Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoon (1766/1974) and his well-known discussion of a famous passage in Homer’s Iliad (book 18), one must moreover concede that dynamic processes cannot be excluded from the realm of description either, not even from literary description, for an epic can, for instance, follow the process of the forging of a shield (cf. also Chatman 1990: 31 and Giuliani 2003: 36). In addition, descriptions, e. g. in novels or films, can occur from the point of view of observing agencies in motion such as characters in cars, panning or travelling


Werner Wolf

cameras (cf. Bal 1981/1982: 132) and may be centred on dynamic phenomena, objects and characters that are equally in motion27. I would even like to radicalize these reservations concerning the ‘proper stuff of description’ and claim that one and the same object of representation can be involved in both a description and a narrative irrespective of its static and spatial or dynamic and temporal quality. A dynamic activity such as a journey is a case in point: one and the same trajectory can be rendered – and here the German terms are revealing – as a Reisebeschreibung (a ‘travel description’) or a Reisebericht (a narrative ‘travel report’)28 depending on what is in focus. Thus, the flight of a World War II bomber pilot from his base to a target city and back could be exclusively centred on the country he sees from above, with its landscape and already destroyed cities. Such a text focussing on the pilot’s perceptions including the effect of the bombs on the target city below – in Chatman’s terminology a ‘happening’ – would be a dynamic description. The same flight and the perception of the destroyed cities could, however, also become the basic situation of an inner conflict of the pilot whether he should obey his orders or save the lives of thousands of civilians. He may suddenly remember the tragic story of a friend who has just escaped an air raid himself, a thought that may motivate the pilot to drop all of his bombs onto open fields rather than onto a crowded city. This version of the flight with its transgression of an official order by a morally conscious hero would clearly be a narrative. So, the occurrence of dynamic content elements such as the movement of an aircraft is clearly not a criterion for distinguishing between description and narration, this criterion must be something else. This ‘something else’ may best be described as the presence or absence of the core elements of typical narratives: motivated actions that involve anthropomorphic agents, are interrelated not only by chronology but also by causality and teleology and lead to, or are consequences of, conscious acts or decisions, frequently as results of conflicts. Jeffrey Kittay is right when he says that descriptions typically refer to, and respect, “surface[s]” and bor27

Chatman, before referring to Homer’s “‘dramatized’ descriptions admired by Lessing” (1990: 32) emphasizes himself that “movement” does not “necessarily mark the end of description and the beginning of narrative” (31); cf. also Lopes 1995, who, however, does not distinguish neatly enough between objects of description and descriptive discourse: “[...] not all descriptions are static.” (23) 28 In English, ‘travelogue’ comprises both meanings (cf. Terrell et al. 1981: 542 [s. v. “Reisebeschreibung” and “Reisebericht”]).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


ders within possible worlds, while in narratives such borders (which can also be limits of the officially allowed as in our example) are usually being transgressed, which typically constitutes an action (see 1981: 228 and passim29). This is also why narratives usually raise expectations and create suspense, whereas descriptions, as stated above, cannot be suspenseful in themselves. Thus, even though, at closer inspection, “[a]ctional and descriptive discourse [...] form a polar rather than an ungradable contrast” (Sternberg 1981: 76), motivated action, notably the overcoming of an obstacle and the transgression of borders, moral and otherwise, is clearly outside the domain of the descriptive30. In this sense a castle would be a typical object of a description, while castle-building on a forbidden site would not. It is this absence of actantional events which appears to favour Chatman’s ‘existents’ as objects of descriptions while not excluding ‘events’, provided the focus is on the sensory appearance (on the ‘whatness’) rather than on narrative eventfulness. A further question concerning descriptive objects refers to their location, namely whether they are typically to be found in the external world of objects or in the internal world of the imagination, in the world of thoughts and dreams, in other words, whether a castle or a castle-in-the-air would be a more typical object of a description. This question is only partially related to the opposition ‘reality vs. fiction’, which has already been dealt with, for the imagination comprises both fictional and real objects. All in all, owing to the limitation of description to concrete objects, there is perhaps a slight tendency to favour actual outer objects and beings, but imaginary phenomena or beings can also become objects of descriptions – as long as they are not mere abstractions and are not involved in actions. Thus, for instance, physiognomies and even dynamic gestures may be descriptive objects, whether of real characters or of persons in dreams, but as soon as a gesture indicates that, e. g., a momentous decision has been made, it turns into an element of narrative. 29

Although Kittay does not refer to Lotman, his notion of what is typically narrative is remarkably close to Lotman’s definition of an eventful ‘sujet’, which involves the transgression of normative as well as usually spatial borders or limits (cf. Lotman 1970/1977: chap. 8.3). 30

Cf. Giuliani 2003: 36, who correctly states that, as opposed to narration, description, besides not being suspenseful in itself, does not focus on changes that lead to a teleological goal.


Werner Wolf

The inclusion of ‘internal’, mental objects into the field of potential objects of description raises another question, namely whether it comprises also psychic and bodily sensations such as emotions or pain. I would say, the answer is ‘yes, in principle’, but again one and the same phenomenon can be classified differently, depending on the point of view taken, namely either as description or as expression. For, as previously said, the descriptive as a mode of representation typically has a referential function. This does not only mean that the descriptive, in a general semiotic sense, points to something outside the semiotic system and hence is ‘hetero-referential’ as opposed to self-referential, but also that it fulfils a referential function in the narrower sense, as described in Roman Jakobson’s well-known theory of the functions of language (see 1960), namely the utterance or representation of facts, opinions, ideas (cf. also Crystal 1987/1997: 10). As such, the referential function, as typically fulfilled by descriptions, is to be differentiated from what Jakobson calls the emotive, that is, the expressive function (see 1960). Thus, ‘ouch’ as an exclamation of pain attributed to a character in a novel is a non-descriptive expression of pain, while the same character – or for that matter a narrator – could also be made to describe the same pain. In this case the emphasis would, for instance, be on the identification of the exact spot on the character’s body where he or she feels the pain together with the verbalization of the specific kind of pain. One should, however, not forget that Jakobson’s theory does not preclude the simultaneous presence of several functions in one and the same speech act (or semiotic act). In view of this, the theoretical distinction of description and expression should not obscure the fact either that in medial representations both phenomena are often closely connected. In fact, there is no such thing as an absolutely objective, object-centred referential description, since description, as mentioned above, always presupposes a subject, the descriptor, and his or her perspective (although the descriptor, as will be stressed later, need not necessarily be part of the descriptive representation). In practice, a descriptive act could therefore even be said to be tendentially bipolar: in it, a dominant referential, object-centred pole31 is opposed to a subdominant subject-centred pole, which determines the perspective of observation but also contains emotional reactions and evaluations. 31 It is dominant for without an object of description there would be no description at all.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


As we will see, it is through this subject-centred pole that attitudes enter media-transmitted descriptions that are theoretically opposed to it in the theory of science, namely interpretation and explanation, as well as subjective, perspectival ‘distortion’ and expression. Owing to one of the basic functions of description mentioned above, namely to create an impression of objectivity, descriptiveness may be said to be proportionate to the degree to which interpretation and at least idiosyncratic subjectivity are concealed32. Conversely, the foregrounding of these factors can lead to diminishing object-centred descriptivity while increasing the portrayal of subjective (perhaps even unreliable) perception and/or evaluation. As a last question, the problem of typical objects of description also involves the dominant sensory quality of such objects: are they typically acoustic, olfactory, tactile or visual? The answer seems simple. For most of the examples given so far have pointed in one direction, namely that objects of description are mostly visual. Yet again, a modification must be made, for irrespective of medial restrictions there is no reason for excluding objects addressing other senses, as the last example (the description of pain) shows. It may only be the predominance of the visual, be it anthropological or cultural, that leads to privileging the visual even in media such as narrative fiction, which can extend to other sensory objects as well33. After the foregoing remarks one can now see how it is that, at least in literature and in the pictorial medium, there is a tendency (but no more than that) to privilege certain objects of description as typical, namely concrete, static and spatial objects of outer reality that can be visualized and are not merely the subject of emotional expression. However, in principle, that is, irrespective of medial constraints, it is impossible to exclude any non-abstract phenomenon as such from the possibility of becoming an object of description. This includes acoustic phenomena and even happenings (e. g. the destruction of a house by a bomb, which can in fact be described rather than narrated) – as long as no narrative connections are made and a mere (seeming) fact 32

This is, however, not to say that a probable and life-like perspective employed in description, e. g. when following the gaze of a ‘focalizer’ in fiction or film, could not also enhance descriptivity.


With reference to verbal texts it is therefore an oversimplification to claim, as does Mieke Bal in her otherwise highly differentiated theory of description, that “every description is a depiction in words of our vision of an object” (1981/1982: 134, my emphasis).


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is in focus. A further major difference between narrativity and descriptivity emerges from this consideration: stories depend on the combination of certain constitutive content elements, and narrative is therefore a complex frame; there is no narrativity without at least one character, nor without events and at least an implied spatial and temporal setting. Description, on the contrary, is a less complex frame, as it can use each of these constitutive ‘building blocks’ of narratives individually: settings, the physiognomies of characters, and details of actions and happenings – all of these can in fact become objects of a description. Consequently, even though descriptions may privilege ‘existents’ in Chatman’s sense, one may say that in principle the descriptive is much more content-indifferent than the frame ‘narrative’. In other words: descriptiveness seems to be much less a matter of content than a matter of presentation and transmission, in narratological terms: a matter of discursivation (cf. already Bal 1980: 10034). What then are the typical modes of descriptive presentation? The most important mode directly results from what has been said and at the same time forms perhaps the most powerful stimulus to applying a descriptive frame: it is the discursive emphasis on ‘surface’ appearances and hence sense data/impressions, even if they are erroneous or imaginary. Owing to this emphasis on the ‘whatness’ of a phenomenon, descriptive objects can appear as more or less isolated givens of a possible world – irrespective of their narrative concatenation to other elements of this world. In this essential aspect of the discursive presentation we re-encounter, in slightly altered form, the emphasis on description as an ‘objective’ rendering of sense data rather than on explanations which we have encountered in the use of the notion ‘description’ in philosophy, the theory of science and in the natural sciences. Seen against this dominant feature of a descriptive discourse, another issue of transmission that has troubled narratology for decades and that may be transferred to the identification of descriptions can be 34 Criticizing former theories of description Bal aptly summarizes: “L’objection la plus importante qu’on peut leur faire est qu’ils sont fondés sur une distinction entre les différents objets du texte, et non sur le texte même.” (1980: 100) It is also noteworthy that at least in his differentiation between “[p]rocess statement[s]” and “stasis statement[s]” (1978: 32) Chatman actually does not present the difference between ‘events’ and ‘existents’ as an essentialistic one but as the effect of a discursive presentation.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


dismissed without much ado, namely the vexed question of whether descriptions require an intracompositional descriptive agency, a ‘descriptor’, who would be analogous to a narrator. From a transgeneric and transmedial point of view, the answer is clearly ‘no’. The existence of an intracompositional transmittor is neither a criterion of narrativity (for it also applies to drama) nor of the descriptive. Descriptions in literature and other media can in fact be transmitted by an overt descriptor or by a covert one or even by no fictional descriptor at all. Thus, descriptions, in nineteenth-century realist novels, are typically transmitted by an overt narrator/descriptor, in modernist fiction frequently through the eyes of ‘focalizers’ while the narrators/ descriptors remain ‘covert’, and in descriptive paintings it would not even make sense to speak of a covert descriptive agency at all, unless one meant the painter him- or herself (but the painter is not an intracompositional agency). All this, of course, does not mean that it does not matter whether there is an overt intracompositional descriptor or not, for – as in narratives – this has important consequences, e. g. for the discernibility of objectivity or subjectivity, but this would require a more detailed discussion. One of the most difficult questions concerning the discursive transmission of descriptions refers to the possibility of identifying a descriptive discourse or representation formally, owing in particular to specific modes of internal organization35. Mieke Bal has emphasized that the principal semantic operation of description is attribution (see 1980/1985: 130, and 1981/1982: 104). As a consequence, any representation in which linking qualities to objects is dominant and, for instance, more important than constructing objects as agents or patients of action, should qualify as a description. While the predominance of attribution is indeed perhaps the most important and typical formal feature of description, there are others that should also be taken into consideration. One of them derives from vivid representation (which often, albeit not always, equals vivid visualization) as one of the principal functions of the descriptive. This consists in the tendency of descriptions to contain seemingly superfluous details that are rendered in similar terms (in language: syno35

In language, there would be additional facets, e. g. the use of certain verb forms (tendentially non-finite forms and non-actantional aspects), yet such specific features would hardly be characteristics of the descriptive if considered in a wider, intermedial context.


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nyms) or belong to the same semantic class and are thus more predictable than the individual signs employed for the transmission of narratives (cf. Bal 1981/1982: 10436). The relative predictability and apparent superfluousness of a plurality of ‘graphic’ details – ‘superfluous’ if seen from the perspective of narrative relevance37 – is at the same time a stimulus which contributes to triggering the frame ‘description’ in the recipient’s mind. Although the number of details, can, of course, vary considerably38, the fact that such details typically exist in descriptions at least to some extent, helps to differentiate description from mere reference but also from simple enactment. Thus, the mere adumbration of a human figure by means of a circle and some lines denoting a body, legs and arms is no more a genuine description of a person than having a character simply cross the stage in some kind of neutral, ‘nondescript’ costume as a part of a larger group denoting, for instance, the population of a city. In contrast to this, the rendering of the particular shape, colour and aspect of an individual human face with wrinkles, scars, hair etc. would certainly be perceived as a ‘depiction’, and the same would apply to a dramatic character who is sent on stage in a historical costume produced with a visible love for period details. A further typical feature of the internal organization of descriptions, which is related to the aforementioned relative predictability of descriptive details, is the following one: in descriptions, the absence of narrative constraints leads to a privileging of a paradigmatic discursive organization (as opposed to a predominantly syntagmatic


With a view to literary descriptions Bal opposes “lexical predictability” as typical of descriptions to “logical predictability” as typical of narratives (1981/1982: 104). 37

Among inexperienced or merely plot-centred readers (as I was when, as a boy, I devoured the novels of Karl May) this apparent redundancy – together with an unwelcome interruption of the action – often leads to skipping descriptions. 38

In his contribution to this volume, Ansgar Nünning differentiates between “bottom-up, data-driven description” and “top-down, frame-driven description” (99). Obviously, the former variant is the one in which details are more numerous, as the latter one can reduce the number of given details, because it relies more heavily on the recipient’s cultural competence to recognize the object referred to along with its typical qualities. It is clear that there are no descriptions in literature that do not, to a certain extent, activate pre-established schemata. My point here is that description is typically more than a mere reference to such schemata, as this could be achieved by a single word without further attributions.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


organization in narratives39). If, therefore, causal and teleological concatenation of different and ever new actantional elements is typical of narratives, the typical mode of organization in descriptions is the metonymic juxtaposition of qualities (see Pflugmacher 2005: 101) that are attributed to individual objects (e. g. flowers in a verbal description of a meadow or trees in the representation of a forest linked by “here” and “there” or “and” rather than by “because”, “suddenly” or “finally”). Apart from that, the internal organization of descriptions is heavily dependent on the medium chosen. This can be seen in the application of descriptive iconicity. Static and spatial objects, spatial media and in particular the pictorial medium seem privileged in following the ‘natural’ contours of the objects described by means of ‘perceptual’ or ‘imagic’ iconicity. A temporal medium such as verbal fiction is on the other hand better suited to rendering dynamic objects of description, whose consecutive stages can be represented in a discursive sequence showing ‘diagrammatic’ iconicity as a kind of ‘conceptual’ iconicity40. In sum, the descriptive – similar to the frame ‘narrative’ – is a multifactorial cognitive frame. It consists of a number of ‘descriptemes’ which may be realized to a higher or lesser extent in individual artefacts41. These descriptemes can be arranged, as shown in the following overview, according to the previously used criteria of function, content and form/mode of presentation; one may furthermore differentiate according to primary descriptemes, which belong to the core of prototypical descriptions (and can therefore form ‘stimuli’ that trigger the corresponding frame in the recipient’s mind [in the overview in bold type]), and secondary descriptemes (single underlined), which are characteristic of prototypical, albeit not all cases of description and generally play a role, in particular when it comes to discussing degrees of descriptiveness: 39

Cf. also Lopes 1995: 5: “[...] descriptions prove to be far more pliable and versatile than narrations, since, unlike the latter, they are free from the constraints of logic and narrative grammar.” This is, however, only a tendency, as paradigmatic forms of organization can also inform comedy (see Warning 1976) and certain other forms of narratives (see Warning 2001). 40 41

For the different kinds of iconicity see Fischer/Nänny 1999.

For an analogous conceptualization of the frame ‘narrative’ through ‘narratemes’ see Wolf 2002c, 2003 and 2004b.


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1. Functional descriptemes 1.1. referentiality (the hetero-referential quality of descriptions, which is qualified by the following descriptemes no.s 1.2-2.4); 1.2. representationality (the representational quality of the reference) and experientiality (which is linked to vividness of the representation eliciting, or enhancing aesthetic illusion); 1.3. the pseudo-objectivizing function of descriptions (their suggestion of objectivity) while they at the same time fulfil an interpretive function (they contribute to, or constitute, an interpretation of the object described or of the text/artefact in which they occur). 2. Content-related descriptemes 2.1. concrete phenomena as objects of the description (whether real or imaginary) rather than abstractions; 2.2. ‘existential’ phenomena as objects of description rather than actantional ones (with a slight tendency towards spatial rather than temporal and static rather than dynamic objects, although these alternatives are also frequent); 2.3. a tendency towards external rather than internal (mental) objects, although, again, these alternatives cannot be excluded from the field of the descriptive; 2.4. a tendency towards the visual/visual objects rather than towards other sensory aspects/other objects, which, however, also occur as objects of descriptions. 3. Presentational/formal descriptemes 3.1. an emphasis on sensory appearance/impressions in the qualities attributed to the objects of description (a focus on their ‘surface’); 3.2. multiple, paradigmatic attributions of qualities to the object of description as a basic semiotic operation that goes beyond mere reference (as identification), leading to a tendency towards a multiplicity of (predictable) details.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


2.5. Description and related notions in the context of literature and other media The foregoing discussion allows us to differentiate, in a survey, descriptions and the descriptive as used in literature and other media from related notions, in particular from (hetero-)reference, narrative and expression: a. Description and (hetero-)reference: The descriptive, as a semiotic macro-mode, always implies (hetero-)reference in a general, semiotic sense (as opposed to self-reference42), namely as any relation that exists, for communicational purposes, between a sign and a meaning that is (thought to be) located outside the sign system, i. e. in a possible world. The kind of ‘reference’ implicated in description must, however, still be further clarified, for reference can functionally be restricted to mere identification, but description, as we have seen, always implies more than that. Thus, in a novel, a simple noun, e. g. a name, would be an identifying reference43, but not a description, while the addition of an adjective to the same noun can be a mini-description44. However, this would not as yet be regarded as the typical referentiality of descriptions either, for typical descriptions tend to attribute a plurality of qualities and details to the phenomena referred to. Thus, description not only partakes in general hetero-referentiality and the referential function but uses it repeatedly for one and the same object. b. The descriptive as opposed to narrative: Both phenomena are cognitive frames, in particular semiotic macro-modes that serve to organize representations and imply hetero-reference. Yet, this is done along different lines: while narrative consists of actantional representations implying motivated and (e. g. causally and teleologically) meaningful changes of situations, the descriptive focusses


For the various kinds of self-reference see Wolf 2007a, and 2007b (forthcoming).


This applies to verbal reference. As opposed to this, representational reference in the visual arts always implies some degree of descriptiveness (see below, chap. 3.1.). 44

Of course, the difference between simple reference and description is not an absolute one but can be gradual. The relation between the two concepts is further complicated by the fact that sometimes description is a first step towards defining an object, such as a newly found plant, which then can be referred to by a simple, not necessarily descriptive sign.


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on ‘existential’ phenomena45: while the typical suggestion of narrative is that ‘something happened because of something else and led to a certain end’, the typical suggestion of description is simply that ‘something is there and like that’46. c. Description as opposed to expression: Both notions can be subsumed under ‘reference’ in the aforementioned very general, semiotic sense, yet apart from that they are located on different logical levels: a description is the realization of a semiotic macro-mode which implies an intensified referential function and a specific organization of signs, while expression, according to Jakobson (see 1960), is a basic linguistic or semiotic function in itself; it can be found (independently of the medium employed) in narratives and descriptions as well as in other semiotic macro-modes. 2.6. Intermediate summary: definition of the descriptive in literature and other media The amount of commentary which has been used in this Essay in order to explain description shows that it is a particularly elusive phenomenon. Yet, it would no doubt be unsatisfactory if this elusiveness and the concomitant difficulties in handling description as a concept led to what has been claimed in research, namely that description cannot be defined at all47. For if we have a notion of the descriptive, if we are able to apply this frame when we perceive a description, it should also be possible to account for it in more than negative terms. Therefore, by way of intermediate summary of the above reflections, a tentative definition of description shall be given that sums up what has been said so far: The descriptive – like narrative – is a cognitive (macro-)frame. In semiotic terms, it can be said to constitute a transmedial and transgeneric semiotic macro-mode of organizing 45

This ‘existential focus’ should not be confused with Chatman’s static spatial ‘existents’ (see 1978: chap. 3), which are components of narratives. It simply denotes an emphasis on the ‘whatness’ of a phenomenon, object, person, etc. irrespective of its involvement in a story. 46 The (seeming) referentiality of both narrative and description must be emphasized in opposition to Ronen’s claim (see 1997: 279) that reference is usually attributed to description only. 47

Cf. Bal (1980/1985: 129), “Problems arise, [...] as soon as one attempts to define exactly what description is”, and Lopes’ view that “[...] unlike narration, description seems to elude any attempts at being defined in a systematic way” (Lopes 1995: 7).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


signs in representations which can inform the macro-level of certain works (and thus become the dominant frame of entire texts and artefacts). It can, however, also occur on a micro-level (thus forming descriptive parts of individual texts and artefacts). In contrast to narrative, which typically consists of meaningful actantional representations, the descriptive provides ‘existential’ representations. This is why descriptions do not require changes of situations as necessary constituents and cannot be suspenseful in themselves (although they can contribute to narrative suspense) nor do they teleologically lead to a certain goal. In literature and other media, the objects of descriptions are concrete phenomena that can be fictitious or real, but are all represented with a noticeable emphasis on their sensory appearance. They are frequently static (spatial) and visual, but dynamic (temporal) objects and other sensory qualities can also be relevant. The main purpose of descriptions is not the mere identification of such concrete phenomena but their vivid representation through the paradigmatic attribution of qualities. This leads to a particular experientiality, and often descriptions also elicit, or reinforce, aesthetic illusion. Another important function of descriptions is the often covert contribution to the overall meaning and interpretation of the artefacts in which they occur. The stimuli that activate the frame ‘description’ in the recipient’s mind are taken from the features that characterize the descriptive. Most important is a representational use of signs that highlights the physical ‘whatness’ of a concrete object through detailed attributions. A discernible emphasis on paradigmatically transmitted perceptual details (‘surface’ details) is a related marker of descriptiveness. If the description occurs in the larger context of a narrative, an additional stimulus is the feeling that the narrative progress is interrupted or temporarily suspended. 2.7. The concretization of descriptive objects in the recipient’s mind Stimuli given by a descriptive artefact or text are only part of what must be taken into account when the frame ‘description’ is activated in a recipient with reference to a concrete object. As with all frames, stimuli that reside in the object perceived (in our case notably the aforementioned ‘descriptemes’) can only be successful if the recipient cooperates, for it is in his or her mind that the medially transmitted descriptions must be realized in order to be efficient in the first place


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(see Walter Bernhart’s contribution to this volume). What Gombrich called, and discussed as, “the beholder’s share” in the ‘reading’ of pictures (see 1960/1977: 154-244) can in fact be generalized and applied to the decipherment of all kinds of descriptions. Together with the recipients and the ‘world knowledge’ at their disposal, the context, in particular the cultural context and the cognitive frames provided by it, must be mentioned as further important factors in the workings of descriptions. As Ansgar Nünning’s contribution to this volume deals extensively with this aspect, some brief remarks will suffice here. The “beholder’s share” has a basic, general implication which must be actualized independently of the medium employed when it comes to a successful reception of a description: it consists in the recipient’s ability and willingness to apply the frame ‘description’ in the first place (the recipient’s knowledge of reality but also of cultural artefacts and texts has a large share in determining to what extent the elements contained in a description will elicit vivid ideas and imaginations). Yet, as the descriptive is a representational macro-mode, there is also a share that varies according to the medium or kind of representation employed. This variable share concerns the transfer from the materiality of the medial or textual representation to what Roman Ingarden called the ‘concretization’ of the objects described in the recipient’s mind (see Ingarden 1937/1968: 49-55). For, as already said, it is indeed in the recipient’s mind, in his or her imagination, that the signs of a text or representation have to coalesce into something that can be identified and experienced in analogy to the real-life phenomena referred to in the respective description. In this process, media-specific gaps, or, to use another one of Ingarden’s terms, “Unbestimmtheitsstellen” (‘areas of indeterminacy’, 1931/1965: 261-270, and 1937/1968: 50), must be taken into account. Apart from the recipient’s ability to fill in gaps (which is always required to a greater or lesser extent, as all medial representation includes areas of indeterminacy), it is indeed to a large extent these Unbestimmtheitsstellen which determine the descriptive potential and limits of individual media as well as the nature and extension of the recipient’s share in the process of concretization. These media-specific issues shall be discussed in the following with reference to select individual media.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


3. Descriptive potentials and limits of individual media As stated in the previous chapter, the concretization of descriptions depends, among other factors, on the medium employed48. This is why the focus of the individual contributions to this volume will be on specific media. In the following, no anticipation of these individual explorations is intended; the purpose of the next three sub-chapters is rather to give some general idea of the extent to which media can in fact influence the realization of the frame ‘description’. By way of example, three media will be selected that are particularly important, as they can provide insights also into other media as well as into the extent of the descriptive field as a whole, namely the pictorial medium as epitomized in paintings (which also covers elements that are relevant, e. g., to photography), narrative fiction as a representative of verbal media (many descriptive aspects of fiction may also be found to be applicable to other verbal media such as drama or film), and instrumental music as an apparently problematic case at the margins of the descriptive field. The sequence of the discussion will follow the degrees to which these three media, at first sight, appear to have affinities to the descriptive, starting with the seemingly most descriptive medium. This hierarchy of descriptive potentials will, however, be questioned in the end. In order to facilitate comparison, one typical object of description will be in focus, namely landscapes in which mountains or hills play a role. As a basis of comparison among the three media chosen, the following guiding questions will be asked each time (albeit not always in identical sequence): 1. What is the predominant semiotic nature of the signs employed in each case49? This question refers to a central aspect of the specific medial nature of the medium in question. 2. How does this semiotic nature influence the descriptive potential of the medium under scrutiny? In particular: what consequences 48

Cf. Chatman 1990: 38: “Though each text-type can be actualized in any communicative medium [...] each medium privileges certain ways of doing so.” (However, Chatman, speaks, with reference to description, of “text-type[s]” and does not distinguish, like Virtanen, between ‘discourse types’ and ‘text types’ [see above, note 25] nor employs the term ‘cognitive frame’ in this context).

49 This implies that apart from predominant or typical signs there are also others, yet it is the dominant ones that determine the descriptive potential of a given medium.


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does the dominant quality of signs have on the recipient’s share in ‘deciphering’ descriptions, what problems may arise, and to what extent is the frame ‘description’ applicable to the given medium in the first place? 3. What is the relation between the two representational macroframes description and its ‘other’, narration, within the medium in question, and how is description marked as a frame of its own, if it occurs alongside narration? 4. What specific functions can be attributed to description within the medium under scrutiny? A fifth question could refer to the history of description in each medium. Yet, answering that would lead too far in the present context and would in some cases anticipate the contributions to this volume that are dedicated to individual media. Therefore, it must suffice here to generally emphasize the importance of the historical dimension in order to complete our enquiry into the descriptive; details will to some extent emerge from the other essays in this book, will be found in previous research, or must be relegated to further research. 3.1. Description in a pictorial medium: painting The first medium under scrutiny is painting as a representative of the pictorial media (in this essay also addressed as ‘the pictorial medium’). From an etymological point of view, ‘description’ does not seem to be an appropriate term for a pictorial medium as part of the visual media, since these media do not ‘describe’ but ‘depict’. However, it is arguably not by chance that descriptio was for centuries a received term used for both verbal texts informing readers about, e. g., foreign countries (such as in Helvetiae descriptio by Henricus Glareanus, 1519) and for maps (to remain within a Swiss context, cf., for instance, a map of the territory of Zurich from 1750 entitled Nova descriptio ditionis Tigurinae, regionumq[ue] finitimarum)50. Clearly, the features of the descriptive frame outlined above (identification of objects through characteristic attribution, communicating sense data about them and rendering them in a [seemingly] objective way) can be applied to both verbal and visual representations. Therefore, it makes sense (and not only with an eye to historical usage) to apply the term ‘description’ to the pictorial medium as well and to compare its de50

See also above, note 1.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


scriptive potential to other media according to the aforementioned criteria and guiding questions. As for the first guiding question, it is easily answered with reference to the pictorial medium in focus. The typical class of signs employed here are iconic visual signs that are usually referential. In the kind of pictorial medium that will be discussed in the following, namely single pictures (and not ‘movies’), these signs are in addition static. Considering the tendency that many objects of description (some would even say typical objects of description) are static and spatial and additionally appeal the to sense of vision, a pictorial medium such as painting appears to have a very high descriptive potential. This is all the more so since pictures, as opposed to, e. g., verbal narratives or films, do not have a beginning, a middle and an end but, so to speak, only a middle and (optionally) a frame, which, according to Luca Giuliani (see 2003: 286), favours description as implying a focus on a specific object. Moreover, the iconic quality of the overwhelming majority of pictorial signs with their reference to form and colour seems to create a natural closeness to a maximum of possible objects of the kind mentioned. “Rather than merely imagining” to perceive something, as when reading verbal descriptions with their symbolic signs, in looking at pictures, as Kendall L. Walton pertinently remarks (1990: 301), “one imagines one’s seeing the canvas to be a seeing of the [object described]” (or, in Walton’s terminology, the object ‘depicted’). As a consequence, one is tempted to claim that this medium requires only a relatively low degree of recipients’ share in the concretization of depicted objects, since it permits the beholder to experience these objects in a way that is much closer to real-life perception than is the case, e. g., in written literature51. The affinity between the pictorial medium and description indeed seems to be so intimate52 that the second guiding question, namely to what extent the 51

This, of course, does not imply a denial of the fact, emphasized e. g. by Gombrich (1960/1977: 251), that how to ‘read’ paintings has to be learnt just like other cultural techniques and that consequently there is no “innocent eye”. The “relatively low degree of the recipient’s share” only refers to the comparison with symbolic sign systems such as written texts and in addition to ‘concretization’ as the early stage of reception (the understanding of what is described in the first place), before subsequent interpretation sets in. 52

Cf. also Alpers 1983: xxi, who uses the conventional impression “that painting by its very nature is descriptive” as the starting point of her interesting historical discus-


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frame ‘description’ is applicable here, sounds banal and should therefore rather be reformulated: are there pictures at all that are not descriptive? Even if at first sight the answer seems to be, ‘of course there aren’t any’, on second thoughts, this reformulated question must get a more nuanced response. For, besides the fact that there are paintings that appear to be narrative rather than descriptive53, there are in fact nondescriptive paintings, notably of an abstract nature as epitomized by some works of Wassily Kandinsky or Piet Mondrian’s “Composition” (1930, see Illustration 2).

Illustration 2: Piet Mondrian. “Komposition” (“Composition”, 1930)

The non-descriptiveness of such abstract works of art clearly resides in the simple fact that they do not employ pictorial signs in a referential way. They therefore do not conform to one of the principal functions of the frame ‘description’, namely to representationality, let alone to life-like experientiality, nor do they create aesthetic illusion. sion of the emphatically descriptive Dutch art of the seventeenth century as opposed to what she considers the mainly narrative art of the Italian Renaissance. 53

For the relationship between these two frames in painting see below.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


Yet, ‘abstraction’ is not a monolithic category. Rather, there are degrees of abstraction, of distinctness of representation and, in connection with this, of intensity of illusion. In connection with this, there are also degrees of painterly descriptivity. It is, for instance, well known that referential art unfolds between poles which Gombrich called efficient “making” and convincing “matching” (1960/ 1977: 121). Art that is typologically located near the former pole concentrates on providing easily readable schemata (which tend more towards abstraction), while art that is closer to the opposite pole focusses more on lifelikeness and less on abstraction and can therefore elicit aesthetic illusion more easily. In terms of descriptiveness, the former type tends to a relatively low degree: references are established for which “the merest schema will suffice, provided it retains [an] efficacious nature” (Gombrich 1960/1969: 94). An example of this procedure is the treatment of the mountains and forests in Giotto’s fresco “La Fuga in Egitto” (Illustration 3).

Illustration 3: Giotto. “La Fuga in Egitto” (“The Flight into Egypt”, 1304-1306, Padua, Chapel of the Scrovegni)


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Clearly, the outer aspect of ‘real’ mountains and mountain forests – as opposed to the appearance of clothes – is not among the main interests of our painter. As for the forests, Giotto reduces them in what is termed in art history ‘Topothesie’ (see Schneider 1999: 15): a forest is here represented schematically by no more than six individual trees. In this painterly metonymy, or pars pro toto, these six trees and the two bare peaks adumbrate, rather than vividly describe, a mountain scene54. As opposed to Giotto’s schematic, low-degree landscape description there is, at the other extreme, nineteenth-century realism, as represented by Karl Haider’s painting “Die Mühlsturzhörner”, a mountain group near Berchtesgaden/Bavaria (1901, see Illustration 4). This painting attempts to ‘describe’ the view of specific mountains with many clearly identifiable, realistic details such as the postglacial boulders in the meadow, the shrubbery, the fir trees and spruces in the middle ground, and the topographically accurate rock formations in the background. The most important difference from Giotto’s mountain scene, however, is the general impression conveyed by Haider’s painting that here the scenery is rendered in imitation of a real-life perspective, as it would appear from a point of view within the depicted world. Paintings like this one show to what extent the pictorial medium is in fact ideal for the description of spatial, visual objects such as landscapes. Owing to the constraints of painting as a spatial, visual medium, there are, however obvious limitations, as soon as the object described is not visual, spatial or in movement. In order to represent an avalanche, for instance, with a maximum of descriptivity, film would clearly be the better medium. If paintings still attempt such descriptions, they must resort to specific triggers which help the viewer to transcend the ‘frozen moment’ depicted. This is usually done by employing pictorial signs in a heavily indexical way, e. g. by representing figures whose bodies betray the movement of flight (see the historical woodcut reproduced in Illustration 5). 54 In view of pictures like this one, one is tempted to consider the quantity of details given in a (pictorial) representation as a criterion of descriptivity. While this is tenable to the extent that schematic representations which have a low degree of descriptivity typically provide few details, one must add that there are other, and perhaps more important criteria (e. g. the lifelikeness of colour, form, texture, etc.), which contribute to ‘convincing matching’ in Gombrich’s sense and hence to a higher degree of descriptivity.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


Illustration 4: Karl Haider. “Die Mühlsturzhörner” (“The Muehlsturzhoerner”, 1901)

Illustration 5: Johannes Weber. “Staublawine über die mittlere Entschigtal-Galerie der Gotthardbahn bei der Station Wassen (Uri) am 15. Februar 1888, Blick nach Norden zum Witenstock” (“Dry avalanche across the Gotthardbahn’s middle Entschigtal Gallery at the Wassen station [Uri] on February 15, 1888, when looking north towards the Witenstock”, 1888)


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In cases like this dynamic scene, the painterly medium must rely on a particularly large share of the recipients’ imaginary activity. For the same reason – medial limitations – paintings also have obvious difficulties in representing, for instance, language and other acoustic phenomena as well as in realizing the temporal frame of representation par excellence, namely narratives55. This leads us to the third guiding question, namely how descriptivity and narrativity are related in paintings and whether the descriptive can be singled out as an independent frame. We are not concerned here with the question, which I have treated elsewhere (see Wolf 2002c, 2003, 2004b), of whether pictures can be narrative in the first place. Suffice it to say that this medium can in fact be narrative to a certain extent, provided representations imply or indicate a temporal and actantional dimension. The relative rarity of genuine narrativity and the extreme frequency of the descriptive in pictures reverses the problem of marking: it is not so much the frame ‘description’ that requires marking in pictures, as it seems to be the default option in this medium anyway (at least as long as it is used as a representational medium), but rather the exceptional frame narrative. In individual, so-called ‘monophase’ pictures, narrativity is frequently signalled by an intermedial reference to a verbal story, as is the case in Giotto’s representation of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, which illustrates a narrative episode of the Gospel according to St. Matthew (2.13-15). Generally, the most important marker of narrativity is the existence, or at a least suggestion of, both a temporal and actantional dimension (which are not requisite in description). Both elements are adumbrated in Giotto’s painting by the gesture of the angel pointing to the right and by the direction of the little procession which also moves from left to right, for a reason and with a goal that are both implied in the biblical text to which the iconography and the title of the picture refer. As for the relation between narrativity and descriptivity in paintings, two general remarks may be sufficient for our purpose of a cursory medial comparison: The first holds true for all potentially narrative media and consists in the simple fact that descriptions can, of course, contribute to the illusionist experientiality and the meaning of stories. Description can, for instance, constitute background information on the characters of a story, just as the way characters are dressed 55

This is, of course, not to say that pictures cannot evoke narratives.

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can indicate their social status, their love of luxury or thrift etc. Generally speaking, description often serves to create the ground (in particular the setting) on which the figures or characters of a narrative can be seen to act. It is with an eye to this figure/ground relation that description can be called in many – albeit not in all – cases “ancilla narrationis” (Genette 1969: 57, see also below). The second remark refers to a specificity of the painterly medium. As pertinently stated by Luca Giuliani, a pictorial representation can in its overall effect, i. e. in the triggering of a semiotic macro-frame on the macro-level, only be either descriptive or narrative (see 2003: 36)56. On the micro-level, this is, however, different, and it is here that a remarkable specificity of the medium appears: while paintings can be exclusively descriptive and non-narrative, they cannot be totally narrative without descriptivity (see ibid.: 285) and in this differ from verbal narratives which do not absolutely require descriptions. In painting (as in film), there is in fact no narrativity without at least a minimum of descriptivity. Each pictorial (hetero-)reference, as opposed to a verbal one, can be regarded as a minimally descriptive gesture, for pictures cannot refer to concrete phenomena without giving at least some details. In contrast to this, a verbal medium, owing to the symbolic nature of language, can remain within the field of unspecified and abstract concepts (such as ‘tree’ or ‘forest’). Painting can only refer to concepts by specifying them iconically to some extent (even if it can be more or less schematic): it must opt for one rather than another quality of the referent57 (e. g. for a tree resembling a fir tree or a deciduous tree, a tree with brown rather than green leaves, etc.). Therefore, all painterly references to essential narrative building blocks, notably persons, settings and actions, are also at least minimally descriptive, as can be seen in Giotto’s fresco58. 56

Other general frames such as argumentation are here out of the question.


Chatman (1990: 40-41) makes the same point about cinema, which “cannot help describing” (40), but this only refers to implicit (“tacit” [38 and passim]) cinematic descriptions, from which he distinguishes “explicit” (ibid.) descriptions. The inescapability of a relatively detailed descriptiveness in cinema is even more radical than in painting (“film cannot be vague” [ibid.: 41])], as the option of merely schematic mimesis is here not usually given, let alone an analogy to abstract painting. 58

According to Alpers, a third general remark could be made with reference to the actualization of the frames ‘description’ and ‘narration’ in painting: “There seems to be an inverse proportion between attentive description and action: attention to the surface of the world described is achieved at the expense of the representation of narra-


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The fact that all pictorial narratives include description does not invalidate the general opposition ‘description vs. narration’ in the visual media, since the reverse does not hold true, for, as e. g. most still lives show, not all descriptions imply narrations. Yet, this same fact nevertheless constitutes a problem for the usefulness of the application of the transmedial notion of the descriptive to visual media: for if most (representational) paintings are more or less descriptive, the notion of descriptiveness does not seem to be very helpful any longer. A solution to the problem may reside in the notion of ‘more or less’: the degree of descriptiveness as such may be a useful category of pictorial analysis, and in some cases it may even be useful to reserve the notion of ‘descriptive painting’ to works displaying a particularly high degree of descriptivity and interest in the surface appearance of the objects represented, as claimed by Svetlana Alpers for seventeenth-century Dutch art (see Alpers 1983). In addition, ‘the descriptive’ may be a helpful notion if one wants to differentiate, in one and the same picture, e. g. between a narrative whole and a predominantly descriptive part (in which, as said above, maybe the setting of a narrative scene is detailed) or between parts that differ according to the predominance of descriptivity or a mixed descriptive-narrative mode. As for specific functions of the descriptive in paintings, or to be more precise, of a high degree of descriptiveness, one may, for instance, mention the (meta-aesthetic) displaying of painterly skills as is the case in many still lives59. Other, perhaps more important functions include the employment of descriptive painterly representation as a topographical recording medium and precursor of photography up to the nineteenth century, and generally the creation or intensification of aesthetic illusion. In all cases of emphatic descriptiveness, the promotion or the satisfaction of a heightened interest in the outer, physical appearance of concrete phenomena are no doubt further functions. These functions also contribute to explaining the historical development of painterly descriptivity. It is no coincidence that in posttive action” (1983: xxi). I am, hoverer, not quite sure whether this is really tenable, since, for instance, the intense narrativity of Hogarth’s picture series (such as “A Rake’s Progress”) depends on minute descriptive details rather than being antagonistic to description. 59 Stoichita has convincingly emphasized this metapictorial function of the still life as an eminently descriptive painterly genre (see 1993/1998: 33).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


classical times descriptive painting reached a hitherto unknown degree in the Renaissance and in the seventeenth century in Dutch art, that is, in periods of renewed interest in the physical (rather than the spiritual) world. In many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century landscape paintings, which moreover frequently celebrate nature in the Romantic tradition, intended functions of painterly description are clarified by resorting to what one may call ‘reception figures’. These are people who are represented alongside the described objects and through whose attitudes, emotionally expressive gestures and other responses the objects described receive a particular colouring. Reception figures thus represent the subjective pole of the descriptive act within the artefact itself and so become an important means of influencing the real recipient by providing relevant frames of interpretation. This is, for instance, the case in Johann Heinrich Wüest’s oil painting “Der Rhônegletscher (Wallis) Blick nach Nordosten” (1772/1773, see Illustrations 6 and 6a).

Illustration 6: Detail from Johann Heinrich Wüest. “Der Rhônegletscher (Wallis) Blick nach Nordosten” (“The Rhône Glacier [Wallis] when looking north-east”, 1772/1773, cf. Illustration 6a)

In this painting no less than three contemporary frames are referred to by the reception figures: the tiny human figures in the central foreground point to the glacier as if to a theatrical performance – nature, through this emotional gesture, is construed in terms of the eighteenth-century aesthetic of the sublime, while the little dog, most presumably a pet, points to the emergent frame of nature as a tourist attraction visited for the sake of entertainment. The group of recipient


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figures which is located somewhat to centre right and contains a landscape painter mis en abyme provides yet another contemporary frame: namely nature as a ‘picturesque’ object of aesthetic representation – and this is arguably the frame through which the real spectator is himself principally meant to view Wüest’s painting.

Illustration 6a: Johann Heinrich Wüest. “The Rhône Glacier”

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


3.2. Description in the verbal media: narrative fiction At first sight, the second medium under scrutiny here, namely verbal fiction as a representative of (exclusively) verbal media (here also called ‘the verbal medium’), seems to have less descriptive potential than painting, at least with regard to objects of description from the field of concrete spatial and visual phenomena. The obvious reason for this ‘Laokoon-problem’ rests in the nature of the verbal medium itself: although it is typically as referential as the pictorial medium, it is a temporal and dynamic medium, that is, it unfolds in a sequence of text and not, as painting, in the simultaneousness of a canvas. In addition, the dominant type of signs employed is symbolic and not iconic, which makes an extra demand on the recipient’s activity. Verbal texts do not permit a life-like reconstruction of objects through the perception of iconic signs. Rather, the work of concretization is here exclusively the recipient’s share. And yet, the frame ‘description’ looms large in almost all works of literature, and the very term ‘descriptio’ already points to the close connection of literature as writing or ‘scriptio’, and description. One of the great advantages of a verbal medium is its referential flexibility: there is in fact hardly a conceivable phenomenon that cannot be referred to in language, and there are virtually no concrete objects, including artefacts and works of art, that cannot be described to some extent with words60. However, when it comes to vivid representation or imitation, language, since it unfolds in time, is admittedly, fitter to ‘imitate’ temporal objects (including most notably language itself) and has difficulties in imitating spatial phenomena. With spatial objects it can hardly avoid creating a remarkably high number of areas of indeterminacy or Unbestimmtheitsstellen in Ingarden’s sense. Yet, as mentioned above with reference to G. E. Lessing’s Laokoon, this problem is not as fundamental as it may seem, for in many cases there are ways and means to ‘dynamize’ the description of spatial objects, e. g. as a process of production. Another means, made use of since the late eighteenth century, are intermedial borrowings 60

For literary descriptions of visual works of art as well as for works of music there are even special terms: ‘ekphrasis’ (which could even lead to an intermedial mise en abyme of description, if the visual artefact verbally described is in itself decriptive) and ‘verbal music’ (for the latter form see Scher 1970 and Wolf 1999: 59-62); both variants of intermedial reference aim at triggering an imaginary perception of the works or media referred to.


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from, or rather references to, the descriptive medium of spatial representation par excellence, namely painting61. So the real problem encountered in the verbal media is not the question of whether the frame ‘description’ can be realized in it at all (it can), but rather how to organize the descriptive discourse. This problem is inextricably linked to another one, which is of particular relevance to verbal media, namely the relation between description and narration. In literature – as opposed to, e. g., paintings such as still lives – description rarely informs an entire work, nor does it usually form an independent genre except for some kinds of lyric poetry (e. g. the Dinggedicht). In narrative fiction at any rate, description usually constitutes a subordinate frame that operates under the auspices of the dominant frame ‘narrative’ and usually helps prepare the ground on which the characters act. Genette therefore called description the handmaiden of narrative (“ancilla narrationis” [1969: 57]), but also claimed, on the other hand, that in spite of this hierarchy, there is no narration without description (see ibid.62). Riffaterre (1986) criticized this claim and even inverted Genette’s alleged hierarchy between narration and description, which for him becomes “mater narrationis” (293). This is, however, overstating the case, for in theory, verbal narratives can do without Anschaulichkeit (‘graphic representation’) and descriptions – although they would perhaps not be very good narratives. At any rate, both frames are in principle more independent from each other in verbal texts than in the pictorial medium, where Genette’s claim is more appropriate, namely that narration – where it occurs – cannot do without description. As for the internal organization of descriptive discourse, verbal texts show a variety of solutions to this problem, covering a whole range of degrees between a very loose and a rigid, artificial structure. All in all, their organization gives the impression of much more flexibility and perhaps even arbitrariness than is, for instance, the case in narrative texts or passages. There is even the danger that verbal de61

The supplementarity of the pictorial medium is, for instance, explicitly thematized (and illustrated by the inclusion of pictures) in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in the reference to the ‘gryphon’ quoted at the beginning of this essay. As Lopes rightly remarks, similar intermedial references could also lead to metamedial selfreflexivity that deals with the limits and possibilities of painting and literature (see 1995: 149). 62 “[...] la narration [...] ne peut exister sans description, mais cette dépendance ne l’empêche pas de jouer constamment le premier rôle.” (Genette 1969: 57).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


scriptions, in the terms of Evelyn Cobley, “turn into lists of items which are not only randomly successive but also indefinitely extendible” (1986: 399). Cobley highlights two crucial structural problems of descriptive discourse, namely where to fix the just amount of descriptive details as well as where and how to end a description. As Cobley’s statement implies, the beginnings of verbal descriptions seem to present fewer problems. There are in fact a number of conventions that help to signal such beginnings. The opening of descriptions as well as their endings are thus related to the marking of the frame ‘description’. One of the most obvious conventions, at least in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, is the initial position of descriptions either with reference to the entire text or to major segments, in particular those that are marked by a change of scenery. Another convention used in order to set off descriptions from surrounding narrative passages on the micro-level is to lead the story to a pause in its dynamic unfolding, e. g. when a traveller takes a rest and has leisure time to gaze at the surrounding landscape, for it is at this point that usually dynamic, actantual verbs will be followed by predominantly existential ones (we will come back to this switching from narration to description in the context of the motivation for description). In all of these cases the ‘theme’ of the description is, as a rule, mentioned in the first few lines63. This naming together with the use of paradigmatic attribution rather than syntagmatic narration is a powerful additional marker of descriptive beginnings. In contrast to descriptive openings, the endings of verbal descriptions tend to present major problems of organization, marking and motivation. As opposed to narratives, in which the ending, as a rule, is the logical or otherwise motivated result of a foregoing development, the ending of descriptions is more or less arbitrary: it can happen at any time, notably when the descriptor feels that a sufficiently clear and vivid idea of the object described has been given. Yet, it is usually difficult to see why this should happen at one specific point rather than another. Therefore, descriptions are in principle “indefinitely extendible” (Cobley 1986: 399), and, as Philippe Hamon justly remarks, their endings are far less predictable than the endings of narratives (1975: 510). However, Hamon has shown that there are possibilities not only to signal the beginnings but also the endings of descriptions (see 1975: 510-513). If authors do not want to resort to 63

Otherwise, the description can become a riddle, a “devinette” (Hamon 1975: 511).


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the simple device of metatextually thematizing the imminent end, the exhaustion of a previously announced descriptive pattern (e. g. the four points of the compass in a landscape description) is an alternative possibility. Another one is to come to the end of a ‘technological procedure’ motivated, e. g., by the logical or usual steps in the construction of a building (ending with the interior decoration). Yet another alternative would be to take up the situation motivating the description in the first place, thus creating a ‘framing’ effect of closure64. As for the problem of how to internally organize verbal descriptions in between the beginnings and endings, which equally implies the question (also mentioned by Cobley) concerning the just amount of descriptive details, one must remember a general fact about descriptions, namely that they all leave Unbestimmtheitsstellen and that such areas of descriptive indeterminacy are more or less discernible according to the nature of the medium employed. They are less so where the medium harmonizes with qualities of the objects described. In the verbal medium fiction, this applies to two fields: firstly, when this medium is used to represent processes, and secondly, when it serves to render that phenomenon in which language is at its mimetic best: namely language itself. Yet, where a medium ‘goes against the grain’ of the objects described, areas of indeterminacy are more conspicuous. In verbal fiction, this is the case with static spatial objects. Attempts at reducing these areas through ever more details (or, as shown with reference to photography in Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic film Blow-Up [1966]) can even result in laying bare the medium as such – a metafictional effect that is exploited on purpose in the endless descriptions, or rather metadescriptions, of the French nouveau roman65. It is also in such cases that the problems of plausibly organizing the descriptive discourse become most discernible. 64 Hamon (see 1975: 520-521) also mentions formal devices, e. g. the use of phonetic and semantic markers of closure as in terminal parallelisms – yet this way of organizing endings is more frequently found in lyric poetry than in narrative fiction. 65 Here, the overdoing of description reveals the fact that the literary discourse is centred on a verbal creation (resulting in a “description creátrice” [Ricardou 1967: 95]) rather than on the mimetic rendering of a seemingly pre-existing reality and ultimately turns description into “une machine à désorienter [l]a vision” (Ricardou 1967: 19; cf. also Ricardou 1978: 124-130). For the excessive use of description in the nouveau roman (e. g. in Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur [1955]) as a device counteracting narrativity and undermining aesthetic illusion see moreover Wolf 1993: 428-433 and, recently, Rippl 2005: 87-96, who also discusses texts in English. On ‘metadescrip-

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


One possibility of ordering a descriptive text, even if it refers to a static spatial object, is what has already been mentioned in the context of marking descriptive endings, namely to follow or invent a process that can plausibly be related to the object described, e. g. its construction (this is the famous Homeric device applied in the description of Achilles’s shield in book 18 of the Iliad). A second possibility is to attempt some descriptive iconicity by discursively following some order inherent in the described phenomenon itself or in its perception. As for the object itself, a ‘natural’, iconic rendering in a dynamic verbal medium is, however, restricted to the diagrammatic iconicity imitating processes that go on in the world described (e. g. a sunrise)66 and thus would not apply to static spatial phenomena. Another kind of diagrammatic iconicity could, however, apply, namely “experiential iconicity”: as I have detailed elsewhere (Wolf 2001; cf. also Cobley 1986), the organization of a descriptive verbal discourse can imitate a process of perception, and this could even apply to static objects, e. g. when the description of a landscape follows a dynamic gaze which firstly surveys the foreground, then the middle ground, and lastly the horizon67. tions’ see Ansgar Nünning’s contribution to this volume. It should be clear that description – as any other semiotic macro-form – is open to metatextuality and that metadescriptive elements are therefore as little confined to the twentieth or the twenty-first centuries as ‘metanarrative’ ones, but can, for instance, already be seen, in the mock-heroic description of the angered Joseph Andrews in chapter III/6 of Henry Fielding’s novel of the same title (1742) or in E. A. Poe’s short narrative “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847), where the narrator “despair[s] of conveying to the reader any distinct conception of the [landscape] marvels which [his] friend did accomplish”; the narrator continues with an interesting reflection on the problem of organizing a descriptive discourse: “I [...] hesitate between detail and generality. Perhaps the better course will be to unite the two in their extremes” (Poe 1847/1908: 39). 66

A descriptive discourse following the sequence of a process would be similar to the diagrammatic iconicity underlying the ordo naturalis of many narrations. 67

Thus, object- and culture-dependent hierarchical relations between foreground and background (salient and non-salient elements) can be imitated in the sequence of the descriptive discourse with the salient foreground coming first; something similar applies to processes of perspectival perception (the discourse following a focalizer’s gaze). Although the occurrence of such iconicity is not very frequent in fiction, its existence must be stressed in the face of contrary statements such as Cobley’s (see 1986: 398f.) and Bal’s, for whom only “[n]arrative fragments are iconic” (1981/1982: 108). Such a denial of the possibility of descriptive iconicity is not only erroneous with reference to literature, but even more so with reference to what escapes an exclusively literary theory of description, namely a non-literary medium such as painting.


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Yet, Meir Sternberg, in one of the best discussions of the ordering principles of verbal description, aptly entitled “Ordering the Unordered” (1981), rightly pointed out that for many objects of description such iconic ordering is difficult or impossible and that therefore the “linear progress is intrinsically unordered” (61; cf. also Cobley 1986: 398f.). Consequently, extrinsic alternatives should be found. One noniconic, ‘symbolic’ alternative would be to follow a logical or conceptual order dictated by cultural conventions, e. g., in Western culture, describing objects from left to right, or, even more importantly, starting with the general and then going into particulars (see Sternberg 1981: 70). The latter sequence corresponds to the logical steps which Jean-Michel Adam sees at work in verbal descriptions but which in effect may also shape their internal organization: the first, general step is what he calls “ancrage”, the ‘anchoring’ of the description in cultural knowledge; this is followed by the unfolding of particular aspects of the object (“aspectualisation”), which, in a third step, are related to each other and to other objects (“mise en relation” [Adam 1993: 104-113, cf. also Adam 1997/2005: 81-95]). Another option could be to adopt a “medium-oriented ordering” (Sternberg 1980: 87) such as following an “idiomatic sequence in verbal discourse” (ibid.: 87) or a “phonic” and “morphological” pattern of language (ibid.: 65). We must now come back to yet another problem which is of particular relevance to verbal media and which has already been mentioned in the discussion of descriptive markers, namely the problem of motivating descriptions within larger narrative wholes. In verbal media, description, as already stated, is usually a sub-frame occurring alongside other frames on the micro-level. Therefore, the question of the motivation for descriptions is here much more pressing than in the pictorial medium. This is all the more so as descriptions, and in particular extensive ones, tend to interrupt the story-line and are therefore not infrequently skipped by the impatient reader, eager for action and adventures. Fiction has handled the problem of motivation68 differently throughout history. The easiest way was relegating the motivation to mere convention: up to the nineteenth century it was, for example, a standard practice that main characters received an en-bloc description 68

For a theoretical discussion of the motivation of descriptions in fiction drawing on Hamon 1972 see Bal 1981/1982: 105-110; Bal distinguishes “three types of [character-centred] motivation”: “looking, speaking, or acting” (108).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


by the narrator at their first appearance in the storyworld, and something analogous became almost a rule in nineteenth-century fiction with reference to the description of settings. A more ‘advanced’ motivation, which was also frequently used in nineteenth-century fiction as well as later on, in particular in modernism, was linking descriptions to the internal perspective of focalizers or ‘reception figures’. Characters looking out of a window, men gazing at themselves while shaving in front of a mirror, tourists admiring a scenic landscape, all of this can serve as a justification for a plausible insertion of a description into a narrative whole. Thomas Hardy, for instance, likes to introduce anonymous visitors as focalizers69, whose gazes serve as pretexts for extensive initial descriptions of relevant settings where the main characters have not yet been introduced. Such a visitor or “rambler” occurs, for instance, in the extract from the opening lines of his novel The Woodlanders quoted above, in chapter 2.1. Interestingly, Hardy’s reception figure – through a tiny detail in the discourse – may at the same time be seen to provide a motivation for the readers to visit, in their imagination, such a “forsaken” stretch of land, for he is said to “trace the forsaken coach-road” “for old association’s sake” (Hardy 1887/1998: 5). The very first line of Hardy’s novel thus betrays, as motivating part of the following landscape description, something of the nostalgia with which the vanishing rural life of what Hardy called his native ‘Wessex’ was perceived in his fiction. This obviously leads to the question of the specific functions of descriptions in fiction. Although descriptions are often perceived as mere ornaments of narratives – and even narratologists such as Genette have held this view70 – they are clearly not ‘superfluous’ elements nor mere backgrounds to narration that simply give heteroreferential information on the setting as a stage for the characters and the action; rather, descriptions fulfil a number of further and more important functions, depending on historical conventions and worldviews. The most obvious among these functions is certainly – in continuation of the use of description in classical rhetoric – to enrich the perceptual appeal of a narrative text and thus to enhance its experiential as well as persuasive quality. Descriptions thus provide, so to speak, food for the recipient’s imagination and serve an important reader69

For the employment of such ‘hypothetical focalization’ see Herman 2002: chap. 8.


See Genette 1969: 58, where he speaks of a ‘decorative’ function of description.


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response function. As mentioned above, owing to the conceptual flexibility of the medium narrative fiction, all sensory domains can in principle be addressed by verbal descriptions. However, there seems to be a ‘natural’, perhaps anthropological tendency to privilege what the term ‘imagination’ already implies, namely the visual. The extract from The Woodlanders bears witness to this, but the general frequency of detailed visual descriptions in Hardy and other nineteenthcentury novelists also show a cultural-historical trend at work: the general tendency towards enhanced visualization and maximally intensified (visual) aesthetic illusion which can be observed not only in the fiction of this period. In Hardy’s Wessex novels (to which The Woodlanders belongs) but also in Scott’s Scottish novels, the loving care of descriptive detail frequently served an additional purpose, in particular when referring to traditional rural or regional phenomena: namely preserving something at least in fiction that was felt to be endangered by the progress of modernization in reality. The informative function of description is thus here tinged with a certain nostalgia and receives additional weight through it. The experiential enhancement which goes along with descriptions, the fact that they generally interrupt the narrative flow, as well as the tendency that they do not occur at random in a text but at certain characteristic points gesture towards yet another function, which one may call relief-giving or ‘architectural’ function: descriptions can also be used to structure a narrative by setting off important scenes presented in the mode of ‘showing’ (which are the ones readers tend to remember) as opposed to summaries, which mostly deal with less important material and are transmitted in the mode of ‘telling’. Descriptions also serve the purpose of contributing to the explanation of story elements71. This was particularly important in realism, for the setting, be it natural or social, was conceived of as determining the characters and their lives to a large extent. Informing the reader about the details of the milieu in which the characters lived therefore was tantamount to explaining them. This explanatory function of description in realism, however, is only one possible realization of what 71

Cf. Genette 1969: 58: “La seconde grande fonction de la description [...] est d’ordre à la fois explicatif et symbolique”, and Hamon 1972: 483, who speaks of description as ‘unveiling’ the character of fictional persons; for the relationship between physiognomic description and ‘character-reading’ see also Wolf 2002a and 2002d.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


is arguably the most important function of descriptions in narrative fiction anyway: they are privileged places for conveying comments on, and interpretations of, the story with its setting, action and characters (cf. Ricardou 1967: 19; Riffaterre 1981: 125) and can generally be said to enhance textual meaning72. This can, for instance, be seen in the following excerpt from a nineteenth-century Gothic novel by Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), in which an embedded story about an innocent young woman named Immalee/Isidora is quoted. This woman is on her way to marry the eponymous hero, an undead evil man who is doomed to wander on earth for 150 years in search of a victim who is ready to sell his or her soul to him. They were now in the open country, – a region far wilder to Isidora than the flowery paths of that untrodden isle [her former dwelling place], where she had no enemy. Now in every breeze she heard a menacing voice [...] she gazed around her, and tried to distinguish the objects near; but the intense darkness of the night rendered this almost impossible […] They seemed to be walking on a narrow and precipitous path close by a shallow stream, as they could guess by the hoarse and rugged sound of its waters, as they fought with every pebble to win their way. This path was edged on the other side by a few trees, whose stunted growth, and branches tossing wild and wide to the blast that now began to whisper mournfully among them, seemed to banish every image of a summer night from the senses [...] ‘[...] are these indeed the winds of heaven that sigh around me? [...]’ she exclaimed, as Melmoth, apparently disturbed by these words, attempted to hurry her on [...] her fears increasing, she wildly exclaimed, ‘Where is the priest to bless our union? [...]’ (Maturin 1820/1977: 506-508 [my underlinings]).

This scene of wild nature illustrates many technical features of descriptions, e. g. the emphasis on a plurality of metonymic details, as well as typically verbal ones, e. g. its dynamic quality, which conforms to the conditions of the verbal medium used. It also illustrates several typical functions of literary descriptions. For instance, it ‘paints’ an interesting setting (at least for contemporary readers), creates a weird, ‘gothic’ atmosphere, contributes to the suspense triggered by the framing action, and generally enhances the aesthetic illusion or ‘immersion’ of the reader. Yet it would be unsatisfactory to functionally restrict this description to just these facets of reader response. What is most important in our context is the fact that it establishes one of those correspondences between landscape and psychological states (Korrespondenzlandschaften) which have become a 72

It is, however, exaggerated and one-sided to reduce such meaning, as Beaujour (1981) has done, to an affinity between description and allegory (see 42), nor is it tenable to claim that “Western description always points to transcendent meanings” (54).


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staple in fiction (as well as in lyric poetry) since Romanticism and have been taken over by other media, notably film. The correspondence is here between the seeming agitation of outer nature (see underlined phrases) and the alarmed heroine’s psyche73, but the description also serves as a correlative of fate’s or God’s warning to Isidora not to marry Melmoth, the evil wanderer. Thus, rather than merely describing visual and in this case predominantly acoustic phenomena, the description gives an interpretation of the planned wedding as something dangerous which displeases heaven and so foreshadows part of the ensuing action: Isidora becomes extremely unhappy, gives birth to Melmoth’s baby (which dies after a short time), falls victim to the Inquisition and finally dies herself. In sum, as the manifold (informative, experiential, ‘architectural’, explanatory and generally interpretive) functions enumerated above imply – and this list is not at all complete74 –, descriptions are crucial elements of verbal narratives. They do not only merit critical attention, and perhaps more so than has been bestowed on them so far, but should also be more focussed upon in the teaching of literature – as passages that should not be skipped but often yield important clues for the meaning, the cultural and historical position of a text. 3.3. Description in (instrumental) music75 Among the classical sister arts, poetry, painting and music, the latter, and in particular instrumental music, generally seems to be the least descriptive, as is evident in the lexicon of the English language: while verbs such as ‘to depict’ and ‘to describe’ point to an apparently in73 Maturin’s narrator is himself explicit about this correspondence when he states on another occasion: “[...] we love to connect the agitation of the elements with the agitated life of man [...].” (Maturin 1820/1977: 108) 74 Besides the functions mentioned here (information on story-world elements, interpreting the setting, characters and action, contributing to the structure or ‘architecture’ of the text, influencing various reader responses) a more systematic list should also provide slots for the fact that descriptions can, for instance, also fulfil a metatextual function (as in the above-mentioned nouveau roman) and contribute to the implied norms and worldview (for – albeit also unsystematic – functional surveys see Th. Kullmann 1995: 469 and D. Kullmann 2004: 687-689). 75

This chapter is a revised version of Wolf 2007c forthcoming. My thanks are due to my colleague from the musicological department of the University of Graz, Michael Walter, for valuable suggestions, in particular on Richard Strauss.

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herent descriptive potential of the pictorial medium as well as the verbal media (in particular those using writing), there is no equivalent referring to music, no expression like ‘to desound’. In fact, owing to its medial quality, music has intrinsic difficulties with the frame ‘description’, at first sight one is even inclined to say more so than with ‘narrative’ and, at any rate, more than the verbal media. For it is not only the Laokoon-problem (the alleged incompatibility between temporal, ‘dynamic’ media and description conceived of as centred on static objects) that in this respect besets music, since this problem also applies to verbal art, which has been shown to have a high descriptive potential nevertheless. Instrumental music has yet another and more fundamental problem with description: it is a problem that goes beyond music’s temporal medial nature. Music resists the frame ‘description’ (as well as the frame ‘narrative’) because it is the most abstract and non-referential medium of all the arts and media, and it is therefore sometimes claimed that a piece of music does not consist of signs at all, in other words that music has no semiotic quality like verbal language (see Harweg et al. 1967: 394). One should, however, be more precise, for music can be said to be ‘referential’, but mainly in the sense of ‘self-referential’ rather than of ‘heteroreferential’. The reason for this is that music consists mainly of signs whose signification resides in their ability to point to other signifiers within the same system, usually by iconically imitating or repeating them (but also by forming contrasts to them). Indeed, the occurrences of the theme in the individual voices of a fugue or the transformations of a theme in a composition ‘theme with variations’ are selfreferentially related to each other76 through such iconic aural similarity, but what can a fugue or a theme with variations describe? The very question seems beside the point. And yet, there are compositions, particularly in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Western art music, that purport to be descriptive and, for instance, are called ‘symphonic poems’, thus pointing by their very name not only to lyrical expressivity but also to lyrical descriptiveness. In 1911 Michel Brenet published an essay with the revealing title “Essai sur les origines de la musique descriptive” (Brenet 1911), and his contemporary Richard Strauss was firmly convinced that one can, ‘of course, paint with tones and sounds’. Strauss 76 The same is true of the many ‘verbatim’ repetitions which abound in music and do not have a counterpart in the visual arts or in literature (except for lyrical refrains).


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is even said to have claimed that a genuine musician ought to be able to compose a restaurant menu (see Krause 1963/1979: 216f.). While this latter claim may not necessarily be taken seriously, the conviction which Strauss in fact shared or shares with many other composers and listeners, namely that music can in fact be descriptive, cannot so easily be disregarded. Some conditions, of course, apply – and in music there are certainly more conditions and restrictions than in most other media. A first condition which one may think of immediately must be mentioned, but only in order to be instantly dismissed: it is the idea that musical descriptiveness depends on a heavy use of a potential in which music is often considered to excel, namely emotional expressivity. Franz Liszt, one of the principal proponents of both the ‘symphonic poem’ (see Altenburg 1998) and ‘programme music’ and indeed the inventor of both terms, is known – to quote from the renowned New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians – not to have “regard[ed] music as a direct means of describing objects; rather he thought that music could put the listener in the same frame of mind as could the objects themselves. In this way, by suggesting the emotional reality of things, music could indirectly represent them” (Scruton 2001: 396). This view is intriguing, and one may concede that musical expressivity may, under certain circumstances, indeed contribute to description by evoking typical, culturally coded moods, atmospheres, etc. which may be attached to descriptive objects such as a ‘peaceful’ pastoral landscapes or a ‘sublime’ mountain scene. Yet, ultimately Liszt’s view rests on a confusion, or rather a short-circuiting, of subjectcentred responses and object-centred reference. If a verbal text or a musical composition for that matter is to describe anything at all, the expression of an emotional response to the object described can only be an addition to a description but can never replace a reference to the object itself – for how could the recipient otherwise know what object has elicited the emotional reaction expressed77? In fact, as 77 See Scruton 2001 in his excellent article on “Programme music”; Scruton also insists on the distinction between (descriptive) reference and expression by rightly pointing out that “description may or may not be accompanied by an expression of feeling” and that “there can be expressions of emotion that are not accompanied by representation” (397). In terms of Jakobson’s functions of language (see 1960) the same differentiation can be made by referring to the ‘referential function’ as necessary for description, while the ‘emotive function’ is a merely optional addition.

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stated above, in chapter 2.4, in all descriptions, and this includes musical ones, an object-centred reference is dominant and indispensable, while subject-centred expression is subdominant and need not be explicit78. The principal (pre-)condition of musical descriptiveness is thus the fulfilment of an essential feature of all descriptions, namely that music should be able to refer to phenomena other than itself, in other words that it can be ‘hetero-referential’. Now, most scholars agree that hetero-referentiality is very untypical of music. Nevertheless, music does have some possibilities of pointing to extra-musical objects – independently of expressivity (which may be regarded as an indexical use of signs). This is a complex and frequently discussed problem of musical semiotics, which cannot be retraced here in all its intricacies79. I will therefore limit my remarks to some general variants of musical hetero-referentiality that are particularly relevant to description. What comes to mind here first is what has traditionally been called in German Tonmalerei, ‘sound painting’. However, the term covers a plurality of aspects (see Altenburg 1997: 1827) so that some specifications are necessary. Its most common denotation refers to suggestions of musical iconicity of various kinds80, degrees of intensity, extension and directness. In its potential to signify through iconicity 78

The importance of such object-centred reference can even be corroborated by a famous statement of Beethoven’s, although this may not be obvious at first sight. For Beethoven, who with his sixth symphony is generally considered to be one of the outstanding precursors of intensely descriptive music, emphasized expression when he claimed that his symphony was ‘more the expression of emotions than a painting’ (“mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Mahlerey” [quoted from Kloiber 1964: 89]). Significantly, the wording of this statement does not deny the presence of descriptive ‘Malerei’ altogether.


For more details concerning the semiotic problem of whether music is a language, is only similar to verbal language or is no language at all, see, among other works, Dahlhaus 1979; Kleeman 1985; Nattiez 1987/1990; Kaden/Brachmann/Giese 1998; Wolf 1999: chap. 2.3. 80

For the different kinds of iconicity (sensory or ‘imagic’, diagrammatic, and metaphorical or ‘semantic’) see Fischer/Nänny 1999 (their typology was, however, devised with reference to verbal language, but can also be transferred to music). It should be noted that musical iconicity – as iconicity in general for that matter – is a classification of signs that centres on the most obvious ‘surface’ use of signifiers and does not exclude that they at the same time show covert affiliations to indexical or symbolic signs.


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music is similar to painting and dissimilar to verbal media (this is also why Walton 1990: 333-337 speaks of “Musical depictions”). As music is an aural phenomenon, the obvious and most direct actualization of such iconicity, which is said to have existed in the music of all times and forms (see Kloiber 1967: 1), is a variant of sensory iconicity, namely the imitation of extramusical sounds by musical means. The resulting “aural mimicry”, to use a term coined by Carolyn Abbate (1991: 33), is – on the basis of cultural knowledge which is responsible for additional symbolic and indexical shades of meaning of the musical signs in question – often seemingly selfexplanatory and does not require the clarifying aid of words. This applies, for example, to bird song, animal cries, thunderstorms and similar sounds, some of which have been incorporated, for example, in the description of a pastoral scene in Beethoven’s sixth symphony, entitled ‘Pastorale’81. ‘Aural mimicry’ can also evoke space as a basic dimension of many objects of descriptions: in performances, the actual location of instruments can thus be used to denote ‘stereophonic’ left-right and ‘dolby-surround’ (foreground–background or ‘echo’) effects (as exemplified in the ‘dialogue’ of two ‘pastoral’ wood instruments in the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique)82. Tonmalerei can also go beyond a more or less direct imitation of sensory phenomena and employ more indirect kinds of similarity (iconicity). One possibility is to arrange musical signifiers so that their sequence mimes the sequence of the phenomena referred to. This ‘diagrammatic iconicity’ can be used, for instance, to illustrate a sunrise by melodies and harmonies that gradually ‘rise’ from initial ‘dark’ and ‘low’ sounds to ‘higher’ and ‘clearer’ ones till they reach a 81

The imitation of the call of a cuckoo in Beethoven’s composition is a good example of the semiotic complexity involved in this kind of musical hetero-reference: while on the surface it is, of course, a form of aural iconicity, it at the same time implies indexicality (the call suggests the imaginary presence of the bird) but also – through connotations – a symbolic use of signs, for the cuckoo implies the culturally codified connotations of spring and/or rural scenery, which are central to Beethoven’s descriptive and expressive purpose. 82

A more indirect form of musical reference through Tonmalerei is visual iconicity or Augenmusik (music for the eye). In this variant, which is, however, not very important for musical description, a relation of similarity is established not between an object and music as an acoustic phenomenon, but as a written code. A famous example is Johann Sebastian Bach’s repeated employment of a sharp – in German Kreuz (cross) – as a reference to Christ’s cross.

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‘bright’ climax in a fortissimo major chord (see Michael Walter’s contribution to this volume). As can be seen from the many terms put in inverted commas in the example of musically describing a sunrise, diagrammatic iconicity as well as other kinds of using music in a referential way is often combined with, or based on, what are actually metaphors attached to sounds: conventional semantic valeurs, such as ‘low’ and ‘high’, ‘slow’ and ‘fast’, ‘dull’ and ‘clear’, etc. that are attributed to what after all are mere physical qualities of melody, harmony, speed, rhythm, loudness and timbre which could be described in quite different terms (such as wavelength, frequency and intensity). The resulting metaphoric illustration is actually a kind of ‘metaphoric iconicity’, that is, of using iconic similarities between a conventionalized vehicle that is linked to an extra-musical tenor owing to some common denominator or tertium comparationis and permits a reference to an extra-musical object. An example of such metaphoric illustration that refers to conventions connected with certain musical phenomena is the description of running water (e. g. a brook) by ‘fast’, ‘wavy’ melodical lines (using the spatial metaphor of ‘rising’ and ‘falling’ melodies); another one is the illustration of spatial effects of distance (or echo), which can also be achieved independently of an actual remote position of the echo-instrument by simply repeating or ‘answering’ (another of the many ‘sunk’ metaphors used in the verbalization of music) with a markedly reduced loudness. While in some cases the referentiality is clear, owing to well-known cultural conventions, others will be less obvious than in “aural mimicry”, and therefore metaphorical iconicity tends to occur more frequently in vocal than in instrumental music. Thus, in Bach’s cantatas and passions, falling single notes in the accompaniment can refer to falling tears83, a racing sequence of notes may evoke the idea of running, and twisting melodies can point to a snake, frequently as a symbol of the devil84. In such illustrations music and words cooperate in a more or less parallel way, which could even be said to result in a certain redundancy if it 83

The conventionality on which metaphorical illustration usually rests can here be seen in the fact that the spatialization of ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ sounds, and consequently the fall of a melody is an at least partially arbitrary imposition on acoustic phenomena which is in itself already metaphorical.


For a classic discussion of Bach’s musical descriptiveness see Schweitzer 1908/ 1972: chap. XX “Dichterische und malerische Musik”, as well as chaps. XXIXXXIII.


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were not that the musical illustration added a concrete dimension to the more abstract verbal reference85. A yet remoter, even more conventional means of eliciting referentiality in music that can also contribute to descriptions is the employment of acoustic connotations through the use of the musical equivalent to ‘intertextuality’: ‘intermusicality’. Descriptive ‘intermusicality’ (which is a special kind of iconicity, since it imitates music in music) can function by means of evoking individual compositions or, more frequently, typical genres or kinds of music86. Thus situations, ‘scripts’ or cognitive frames can be referred to which are conventionally associated with certain sounds, musical instruments and forms. For example, in a nineteenth-century symphony the sound of horns (a generic imitation of a particular real-life use of specific musical instruments) may evoke a hunting scene through an association of ideas (as in the third movement of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony); a Ländler played by an orchestra including a clarinet may recall a rural scene (a form of generic intermusical reference that occurs in the third movement, Allegro/“Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute” of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony). And a hymn (an imitation of real-life vocal music) can elicit the frame ‘church service’ (as in the fourth movement of Schumann’s Rheinische[r] Symphonie [Rhenish Symphony]); sometimes the quotation of the melody of a vocal composition can also, through ‘intermedial association’, evoke the corresponding words87, thus introducing yet another dimension of signification into an instrumental composition. Even though such acoustic connotations are usually also based on ‘aural mimicry’ they 85

For a recent, more extended discussion of musical reference by means of iconicity see Georis 2005. 86

The categories of ‘individual intermusical reference’ as opposed to ‘generic intermusical reference’ correspond to equivalent notions in literary intertextuality theory (see Broich/Pfister, eds. 1985). In either case the hetero-referentiality potentially resulting indirectly from such basically intra-medial self-reference can emerge from cultural connotations (and hence a symbolic use of signs) that are attached to the musical pretext and are ‘imported’ into the ‘quoting’ composition alongside the intermusical reference. 87

This device (in technical terms, a ‘partial reproduction’ of a work transmitted in another [sub-]medium or genre) is restricted to individual references and is a reciprocal equivalent of the “evocation of vocal music through associative [verbal] quotation” which I have used elsewhere in the context of devices that are conducive to a ‘musicalization of fiction’ (Wolf 1999: chap. 4.5.).

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go beyond the mere identification or illustration of a given phenomenon. Like painterly topothesia they rather operate on the principle of metonymic pars pro toto: the imitation of individual acoustic elements of the phenomena described are meant to trigger entire scripts or cognitive frames88. Thus, a popular melody occurring in a symphony, may, for instance, not principally be meant to imitate a specific song but to point to the context in which such a song is conventionally supposed to occur89. Considering these various devices of musical hetero-reference, music, including instrumental music, can certainly not be said to be entirely incapable of pointing beyond itself. Yet, are these devices of reference per se already descriptive? In spite of what the term Tonmalerei – literally ‘sound painting’ – may imply, I would like to contend that this is not the case. A repeated imitation of the call of a cuckoo in eighteenth-century harpsichord music is, for instance, not a description of this bird but a mere reference to it. For according to what has been said above, description implies reference but also requires attributions that specify some concrete object and go beyond mere identification. Nonetheless, all of the devices just mentioned may contribute to what may in fact be termed musical descriptiveness, provided they establish such attributions, preferably multiple, varied and complex ones. It is clear that this conception of musical description substantially restricts the historical range of its occurrence and excludes many pre-nineteenth-century extramusical references that identify, but do not describe, extramusical phenomena. Yet, all of this does not banish instrumental music from the realm of the descriptive altogether. For, in particular in nineteenth- and twentieth-century programme music (including symphonic poems), there are several examples of an extended use of musical hetero-reference that may indeed be said to form musical descriptions. A case in point is Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), first performed in 1915. This 50-minute composition, 88

This is also a process that is typical of the reception of descriptions in general (see Nünning’s contribution to this volume). 89

The descriptive potential of such musical connotations, for which once again Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (in the third movement, Allegro “Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute”) provides an example, is based on cultural competence (one must be able, for example, to identify the popular character of the music) and on the recipient’s imagination – and this to a far greater extent than other devices of musical hetero-reference.


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which requires a gigantic orchestra of more than 120 instruments, including organ, wind machines and cow bells, follows a vaguely narrative programme and thus constitutes an example of programme music90: we seem to follow the stream of consciousness of an anonymous agency, whose several activities, impressions and expressive reactions to his or her experiences are rendered by musical means91. The programme consists in the ascent of a mountain with a climactic reaching of the summit followed by a descent. This simple narrative outline is the framework into which several descriptive scenes are set, and this illustrates a typical relation between narrative and description familiar from fiction and other narrative media, namely the subordination of description to the narrative. Among these scenes there is also a section entitled “Auf der Alm” (‘On the mountain pasture’), on which I would like to concentrate briefly. As one can hear in particular in the first minute and a half of this ‘scene’, Strauss here combines two devices of suggesting musical hetero-reference. There is, firstly, aural mimicry of various kinds (the imitation of natural phenomena and, by means of generic intermusicality, the imitative reference to instrumental as well as to vocal music): we hear bird song, cow bells, a yodel (‘Jodler’) and a Ländler. And there is, secondly, the suggestion of rural peace by means of (symbolic) connotations: this concerns the evocation of a rustic milieu through all of the items of aural mimicry and generic intermusical reference just mentioned, but above all the generally peaceful atmosphere of the passage produced by appropriate dynamic, melodic, rhythmic and harmonic means. As opposed to the isolated references to extra-musical phenomena sometimes encountered in older music, we are thus confronted here with a relatively complex sequence of referential attributions (the presence of birds, cows, and farmers together with a certain atmosphere) that coalesce into the evocation of a natural scenery, hence an external reality, and thus appear indeed to be eligible as a musical description. 90

If one calls the composition ‘programme music’, one employs the term in a broad sense and includes also non-literary programmes (for this broad meaning see Altenburg 1997: 1822, for whom the term suffers from a ‘babylonian confusion of language’ [1821]); for a classification as a symphonic poem or a Tondichtung see Kloiber 1967: 189 and Walter 2000: 150. On the problematics of the term ‘programme music’ in general, see below, note 96. 91

Part of these means is the employment of Wagnerian leitmotifs.

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Yet, if description is a cognitive frame that needs to be activated, what is it that triggers the idea of description here in the first place? This question implies the further question of how to recognize a musical description when being confronted with one, in other words to the issue of ‘markers of musical description’. This is a problem which has not as yet received sufficient critical attention. With reference to fiction as well as to the visual media, it is perhaps not obvious as a problem at all, for in both kinds of media the presence of description appears to be self-explanatory and ‘self-signalling’. Yet, even there, markers or at least clear symptoms are common. These include, for instance, the frequent device of building a moment of rest into a narrative (a character’s gaze during a pause in a travelogue, a view from a mountain top or through a window, etc.) which motivates the interruption occurring by the ensuing description, or the change from the syntagmatic narration of ever new elements to a typically descriptive multiplicity of paradigmatic attributions that are all centred on one and the same object. In music, where description is certainly less self-explanatory, such markers appear to be even more important and deserve special attention. This is all the more so as there is always the ‘danger’ of ‘misreading’ descriptive passages as (parts of) a purely abstract, non-referential and hence non-descriptive musical composition. In view of this ‘danger’ an important means of signalling descriptive referentiality consists in urging the recipient to abandon the default option ‘music follows its own logic’ by simply denying such musical logic. This can be done by departing from established musical forms in a seemingly ‘inexplicable’ way or by not adopting any received form, including the usual musical self-referentiality, in the first place, thus barring a traditional access to music92. This is largely the case in Eine Alpensinfonie, for in spite of the title and the employ92

Strauss, however, would not have agreed with this, since, as Dahlhaus reports (see 1978: 137), he opposed the idea that programme music was formless if it did not follow schematic forms and insisted on the fact that a ‘poetic programme’ can lead to new forms. Dahlhaus himself seems to adopt this view (see 2002: 694f.). Yet, the mere existence of some kind of form even in heavily descriptive or narrative music is not the point: it is the nature of this form which counts, for it is mainly ‘schematic’, that is, pre-existing and well-known forms (and not new ones) that can function as an orientation for recipients to navigate through a composition, while newly devised forms do not support this orientational function with the same ease, and this seems to be the case with Strauss.


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ment of themes and motives, the composition does not show symphonic form, let alone sonata form, nor any other conventional form. As a result, the listener is challenged to find an alternative principle of coherence – which the narrative and descriptive programme in fact offers. It is, however, clear that such a procedure is not without its problems, for the absence of traditional musical form – if it is perceived at all by the average listener – need not necessarily point to an extra-musical reference but could just be regarded as unconventional or experimental and perhaps even notably self-referential music. In addition, the lack of conventional intramusical form alone would not suffice to point to certain descriptive rather than, for instance, narrative contents93. This problem of enabling the listener to correctly ‘decode’ a given passage is all the more difficult as descriptive passages are sometimes, if less frequently than in narrative fiction (in Eine Alpensinfonie but also in Smetana’s “Die Moldau”/“Vlatva” from Má vlast/Mein Vaterland), set into an overall narrative frame. Thus, it is almost inevitable that in music descriptive reference resorts to the verbal medium, in particular if the composer wants the recipient to ‘hear’ specific objects described. Explanatory words can help here in two distinct ways. The first is the integration of words into the composition itself, as in the lied, in opera and other kinds of vocal music. Where this option is not given, as is typically the case in nineteenth-century instrumental programme music, a second option may apply: it consists in using the medium of words in the ‘framing’ of the composition. This can be done, minimally, in its title (as exemplified by Eine Alpensinfonie94), but also in more remote ‘paratexts’, e. g. explanatory essays in concert programmes or other publications. Thus, Richard Strauss had the titles of the individual sections of his Alpensinfonie printed in the concert programme of the first perfor93

The ‘deviation argument’ (deviation from formal musical conventions as a symptom of [intended] musical referentiality) has in fact been used in the context of potential incentives for listeners to apply the frame ‘narrative’; see Walter 2000: 151, and Micznik 2001: 246, 248. 94 Genette (1999) calls such evocative titles, by which music signals a thematic attempt at ‘becoming text’ (“se faire texte elle-même” [116]), “titres thématiques” (111). Cf., for the use of such ‘thematic’ (rather than ‘rhematic’) titels also, e. g., Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition, whose title suggests that this composition is a special case of musical description, namely a series of musical equivalents to ‘ekphrasis’; the titles of the individual segments (such as “Il vecchio castello” or “Catacombs”) form further markers of intended descriptivity.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


mance (Dresden, Oct. 28, 1915), which also included an essay by his friend Max Steinitzer entitled “Thematische Einführung” (‘Thematic Introduction’, see Walter 2000: 148). In addition to these markers, a descriptive gesture in music can, of course, also be signalled if any of the afore-mentioned devices of musical hetero-referentiality is employed with a salient frequency or if such devices occur in combination with each other and thus also reach a salient, unusual quantity. For, as already said, a certain amount of details is one of the typical features of descriptions. Yet, the difficulty presented by this marker, as well as by others, is again the possibility of pointing to musical narrativity rather than to descriptiveness. This once again raises the problem of the relationship between description and narrative. In music, this problem is at least as thorny as the question of musical hetero-referentiality – the difference being that this problem is not even recognized as such in most musicological research, in which the terms ‘description’ and ‘narration’ are frequently used indiscriminately (including the relevant articles in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, cf. also Scruton 2001 and Macdonald 200195). One motivation for blurring the two frames may be their frequent co-occurrence not only in fiction and other media but also in music. This points to an important facet of the problem of distinguishing between musical narrativity and descriptivity, namely the question of whether both frames can occur independently of each other or only simultaneously in one and the same composition. From a historical perspective it seems that in music, as opposed to the painterly medium, both frames can in fact occur independently. Yet, there are no musical compositions that are predominantly descriptive, let alone entirely so, before the emergence of the symphonic poem towards the mid-nineteenth century. All earlier occurrences of Tonmalerei were restricted to isolated pockets within larger compositions, usually non-narrative ones, as in the cases of musical illustration in the Baroque age. In instrumental music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries musical description tends to appear in combination with musical narrativity. Musical descriptions were then frequently integrated into compositions that attempted to realize a 95

Cf. also Genette 1999, who in his discussion of musical references to, and imitations of, literature does not distinguish between (narrative) “romances sans paroles” (title of his essay) and “poèmes sans paroles” (116) either.


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larger narrative frame. Narrative ‘programme music’96 deserves to be mentioned in particular, as in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (which enacts the biography of an artist) or in Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie (which, as said above, recounts the ascent of a mountain). With a view to the pre-nineteenth-century examples it is, however, necessary to repeat that in principle musical description can occur independently of both the symphonic poem and programme music forms, in which musical description has found its most extensive and intense development in history to date. These formal and historical considerations do, however, not yet clarify the difficult identification of musical descriptiveness as opposed to musical narrativity from a theoretical, systematic point of view. This identification is all the more difficult, as the temporal nature of music tends to favour temporal objects of description, and the presence of a temporal dimension is at the same time a sine qua non of narrative97. I would like to propose two hopefully helpful criteria of differentiation (which, of course, are only meaningful on the basis of hetero-referential gestures in a given piece of instrumental music). The first is the question of whether a given composition suggests or does not suggest the presence of interacting characters or, minimally, of one experiencing character in an intracompositional possible world. While narrative necessitates such a presence, descriptions – as mentioned above – can dispense with such agencies, even without a describing consciousness as a part of the possible world described. The second criterion refers to the question of whether a given composition shows the presence of a teleological, goal-oriented trajectory and, in connection with this, a motivated ending. The ending of a story must somehow be connected to, and motivated by, a 96

There is no common agreement on the definition of ‘programme music’. The term has been applied in a broad sense to all kinds of intensely descriptive extra-musical references and has thus become similar to ‘symphonic poem’. In a narrower sense the term is opposed to ‘symphonic poem’ in that it denotes a reference to a literary text (see Kloiber 1967, who speaks of a “dichterische Vorlage” [‘poetic model’, 1] and Scruton [2001: 307], who applies it to music following an extra-musical, usually literary “narrative or descriptive [concept] which [is] essential to the understanding”). If ‘programme music’ is restricted to translating a literary text into music or at least to referring to it, it becomes an intermedial phenomenon, which can cover the fields of intermedial transposition and imitative intermedial reference. 97

In verbal art, the same temporal nature does not lead to a confusion, as the semantic surface of a text frequently is enough to differentiate between the two frames.

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previous teleological development and thus is typically a logical result, while the ending of a description can occur when its object has been represented in a sufficiently vivid way. As ‘sufficiently vivid’ is a highly debatable notion, the endings of descriptions tend to appear as a-logical and arbitrary. In music, the ending of a description would at best be motivated by aesthetic, compositional criteria but not referentially. Compositions or parts of compositions that betray extramusical reference but imply neither a story-like trajectory nor interacting characters can therefore not be regarded as narrative and may by default qualify as descriptive. The negative quality of these criteria – the absence of a story-line and of character correlatives – again highlights what we could repeatedly observe about descriptions in general, namely their relatively loose internal organization. Descriptions do not typically show suspenseful developments towards conflicts nor do they have climaxes and resolutions that lead to an ending98. Nevertheless, the presence (or rather absence) of the aforementioned markers and a specific musical texture permits us in fact to consider scenes like “Auf der Alm” as an instance of musical description rather than narration (this scene is full of hetero-referential gestures, but does not suggest interacting characters nor a teleological trajectory). This enables us to compare this example with the descriptive extract from Melmoth the Wanderer quoted in the previous chapter and also to comment on the descriptive potentials and limitations of instrumental music in general. In the musical as well as in the literary example a landscape is in focus and arguably identified through multiple attributions. However, as is to be expected, both the motivation for the description and the identification of the scenery are much more precise in the literary example than in the musical one. As for the motivation, the literary text provides a plausible and conventional reason for the insertion of the description at least in the earlier part of the excerpt, namely by linking the description to the focalizer Isidora, who has an obvious interest to learn where her would-be husband is leading her. In contrast to this, the musical example, as expected, does not provide any motivation at all, and so a 98

In literature, the same holds true for lyric poetry, although much of poetry can be said to render the stream of consciousness of a human agent like stream-of-consciousness fiction, but in the absence of events the content of lyric streams of consciousness is usually different from that of narrative ones.


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potential ‘rest’ of the wandering persona is at best a probabilistic guess by the recipient. As for the precision of the description, the differences are no less obvious: while in the literary case the description refers to a (seemingly) specific geographical region, in the musical case such specificity is impossible. If one disregards the verbal framing of the musical example, it would, strictly speaking, even be doubtful whether the scene is really set in the mountains, for cow bells and bird song can be heard, for instance, in the Bavarian lowlands too, which is basically also true of yodels (although the cultural connotations may imply something different). This points to a general feature of music as a potentially descriptive medium: owing to the medium-specific limitations concerning hetero-referentiality (which excludes symbolic signification, at least as far as denotation is concerned, and privileges iconicity99) the scope of potential objects of description in music is much more restricted than in a verbal medium, where the flexibility of symbolic signification opens possibilities for the description of a practically unlimited range of objects. As for the vividness of the descriptive representation, one may argue that the verbal example, even if read independently of its narrative context, is apt to convey experientiality and perhaps also elicits mental images that create a feeling of immersion and hence of aesthetic illusion in the recipient. Even if it may be conceded that the musical example can also convey a certain atmosphere (and, since atmosphere is largely a matter of emotion, does so more efficiently than the verbal text), it is again doubtful whether Strauss’s musical description can really elicit aesthetic illusion. If it triggers something like immersion at all, there seems to be a noteworthy difference in the recipient’s share in this process as compared to fiction. While all aesthetic illusion requires the cooperation of the recipient and some experiential reservoir (some scripts that a text or artefact may actualize), the literary text guides the process of illusion with more authority than music. Strauss’s description in fact requires much more imaginative reconstruction or construction on the part of the recipient 99

Strictly speaking, one could argue that one ought therefore not to use the term ‘to describe’ for most of musical ‘depiction’; however, ‘description’ is so much a received term for the transmedial frame under discussion that it would make little sense to resort to another term such as ‘depiction’, which in turn could be criticized as a misleading metaphor, since, again strictly speaking, music does not ‘paint’ either.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


than Maturin’s. And arguably the results in individual recipients will differ much more widely than the impression triggered by the literary counterpart. For the very general stimuli of the music permit a wider scope of variation than the more precise indications provided by the verbal text. The difference between the two media is even greater with reference to another general function of descriptions, namely to contribute to the construction of the meaning of the artefact as a whole. In Strauss’s case the meaning of the scene on the alpine meadows is restricted to conveying the idea of peacefulness and joy as a contrast to the ensuing excitement when reaching the summit and experiencing a subsequent thunderstorm. Considering the period of composition, namely World War I, this peacefulness may also have a contrastive if not compensatory reference to the cultural-historical context, but this is already a mere guess. Maturin’s description, again, conveys meaning in a more precise way, as explained in the previous chapter. As has become clear, description is a potential of instrumental music, albeit not a natural one. If this is so, one may ask what the advantages of description are which made instrumental music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries venture into this problematic realm in the first place. There are several possible answers to this question of the functional history (Funktionsgeschichte) of descriptive music100 (which in this respect is closely connected to programme music). One of the answers arguably lies in the looseness of organization which is characteristic of description and which distinguishes it both from narrative and even more so from the formal organization of traditional musical genres. From a sociological perspective this looseness may indeed be thought to have not least contributed to the attractiveness of the symphonic poem and other genres of programme music in the nineteenth century. For the reception of instrumental music gained a hitherto unparalleled popularity in that period, and music appreciation was expanded from a restricted and more or less elitist public to a larger, middle-class audience. Among this expanded public the specialists formed a considerably smaller fraction than in earlier times. This means that a larger part of the audience must have had increasing 100

As with questions of possible functions of works of art in general, one should, however, bear in mind that answers in this field tend to be more or less convincing theses rather than demonstrable (historical) facts.


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difficulties in finding a purely formal or abstract access to music. In addition, the public performance of instrumental music, formerly predominantly motivated by pragmatic purposes (such as contributing to a religious service, or providing a ‘divertimento’ during a feast for aristocrats), now increasingly took place in the de-pragmatized frame of the concert hall (and could last several hours). The shift of the burden of musical appreciation from intramusical, formal criteria that required a specialist’s knowledge of genres and compositional devices to more easily understandable extramusical ideas or ‘programmes’ (including nationalist ones as in Smetana’s Má vlast [see Altenburg 1998: 162]) may consequently have been regarded as a welcome development. Rendering instrumental music more transparent for an expanded public of non-specialists and thus forming what could be termed ‘music lite’ was arguably one of the functions of musical descriptiveness in the nineteenth century. Yet, descriptive music can enhance the emotional and aesthetic effect of highly sophisticated works, too, and is by far not restricted to ‘naive’ or ‘middle-brow’ compositions. After all, the readability of musical reference, owing to the resistance of the medium, is in itself not always easy, and in many cases even the deciphering of Tonmalerei presupposes considerable listening competence. It can therefore be held that at least with reference to nineteenth-century programme music, the emphasis on musical description can also be explained with reference not only to the wishes of the less competent listeners but also to those of the connoisseurs. For to them it may have been not so much the wish to get an easier access to music but rather the impression that traditional musical genres such as the symphony and the concerto with their eternal sonata forms, tri-partite lied patterns or rondos had been exhausted. This may have increased the desire for something new. In this context the development towards programmatically descriptive music must have appeared as a welcome and aesthetically satisfying alternative. Another cultural factor one may think of in order to account for the acceptability of descriptive music with the ‘highbrow’ culture, in particular in the historical situation of the aftermath of Romanticism, is the influential Romantic ideal of a ‘poeticized’ music, since it can more easily be connected with the descriptive in music than the rivalling ideal of ‘absolute music’. Yet, Dahlhaus (see 1978: 128f.) has pointed out with reference to nineteenth-century programme music that the Romantic aesthetic of the poetic in music is not simply tan-

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


tamount to any kind of ‘literarization’ of music, for the poetic in Romantic terms privileges the ‘marvellous’ and to that extent only descriptions of such subjects would fall into the realm of Romantic influence. However, in another publication Dahlhaus (see 1976: 8994) provides an interesting alternative solution. He convincingly argues that the old privileging of vocal music over instrumental music persisted well into the mid-nineteenth century (even though, one should add, instrumental music had attained a hitherto unequalled popularity). In addition, the educated middle class, which provided the core of nineteenth-century musical amateurs, was largely literature-oriented; Dahlhaus even speaks of a cultural predominance of literature (“Vorherrschaft der Literatur” [ibid.: 93]). In this context, the ‘literarization’ of programme music, including the employment of description in music, could (as was the fact with Franz Liszt) function not only as a means of meeting the audience’s taste and enculturation in this respect101 but also as a means of nobilitating instrumental music through placing it in the vicinity of noble ‘poesy’ (“ein Mittel, die Würde der Instrumentalmusik – den Anspruch, ‘Kultur’ und nicht bloß [...] ‘Genuß’ zu sein – zu fundieren” [ibid.]102). Be that as it may, the fact remains that descriptive music presented an alternative to ‘absolute’ music that had – and has – an amazing appeal and produced an equally remarkable body of compositions103. Over and above historical considerations this at least testifies to an important theoretical fact: namely that description is indeed a transmedial phenomenon in which both words and music participate, albeit in different ways and to different degrees. Music’s potential in this respect even seems to be greater than its narrative potential, since the descriptive, in order to be discernible as a hetero-referential gesture in music, requires less than narrative. This is possibly the reason why musical description has occurred more frequently, at least in isolated


See also, with reference to the symphonic poem, Altenburg 1998: 157.


“[...] a means of giving a basis to the nobility of instrumental music, to the claim that it is ‘culture’ and not [...] merely ‘pleasurable entertainment’.” [My translation] 103

An idea of the extent to which description has in fact been employed can be derived from Klaus Schneider’s Lexikon Programmusik: Stoffe und Motive (1999), even though not all of his collection of hetero-referential musical subjects and motives in programme music is relevant to musical description in the sense used in the present essay.


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elements, throughout history104 than musical narrativity. It even continues to thrive in contemporary film music so that the descriptive in music appears as a critical subject which will require further attention both from a theoretical and a historical perspective.

4. Conclusion To recapitulate and conclude: Description is obviously a notion that is used in several contexts. In the context which is relevant to the present volume, namely literature and other media, the descriptive is a particular cognitive frame that is destined to vividly represent settings, characters and other concrete objects with an emphasis on their perceptual appearance, on their specific being, the attributes of their So-Sein. As long as one remains within the scope of the concrete, this emphasis, which is a product of transmission or ‘discourse’, is much more important than the selection of the object represented. Descriptiveness is thus largely a ‘discursive’ phenomenon – arguably more so than narrativity. Therefore, also the ‘substance’ of all discursive transmission, the medium, plays an especially important role in descriptions. As with narrativity, different media have different descriptive potentials in realizing the frame ‘description’. The term ‘potential’ can in retrospect be seen to consist actually of two dimensions: the scope of describable phenomena and specific areas of descriptive strength or excellence. In both respects media vary, depending on the signs predominantly employed by them, their representational faculties and their mainly spatial or temporal nature. Consequently, the recipient’s share in ‘reading’ the objects described also varies105.


For the history and pre-history of ‘programme music’ see Altenburg 1997: 18331843, and Scruton 2001: 397-399; for the history and extension of the sub-genre of the symphonic poem see in addition Macdonald 2001 and Altenburg 1998: 160-167. It should, however, be noted that ‘programme music’ is not co-extensive with musical description. Altenburg even goes so far as to claim that Tonmalerei – the most important device of descriptive musical hetero-referentiality – is not a necessary part of programme music (see 1997: 1827). 105

This variation, however, excludes a degree zero (since there is no perception without the recipient’s cooperation) and 100% (for this would point to an absence or irrelevance of an artefact as a stimulus of description).

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


As for the scope, music is certainly most limited here, as it can only vaguely describe some phenomena that all must have at least some kind of relationship to aural impressions. Pictorial description is also limited, albeit less so than music, as it can in principle embrace the entire range of visual phenomena; in addition, it can at least refer to non-visual phenomena by showing their visual results (e. g. wind through the representation of an extinguished candle or a bad smell by the grimace of a person) – although this is not exactly describing but only indexically alluding to a phenomenon. Among the three media discussed, fiction as a representative of the verbal media, owing to the symbolic flexibility of its signs, certainly has the greatest range of potential descriptive objects. Indeed, its scope is in principle unlimited, as it can give detailed information on all sorts of describable objects. If in looking back we therefore want to assess the general descriptive potential of the three media compared in terms of scope, that is, regardless of their specific strengths in some fields, we ought perhaps to rearrange the sequence and attribute the maximum of descriptive capability not to the pictorial medium but to the verbal one106. However, the superior position of the verbal medium in one descriptive field does not entail that it equally excels in all others, too. Thus, the undoubted representational faculty of the pictorial medium with its static visual signifiers is best employed when depicting static spatial objects. This is a field in which verbal literature cannot compete with pictures. On the other hand, literature, a no less clearly representational and hetero-referential albeit temporal medium, is better able to describe processes and, of course, language itself. It is indeed here (and this also applies to fiction as a literary sub-medium) that it is at its best as to precision and potential reduction of areas of indeterminacy107. In these respective areas of descriptive excellence, the recipient’s share will be smaller than in other areas. In contrast to this, owing to its inherent difficulty concerning hetero-referential representation, instrumental music must resort to a maximum of recipients’ contribution even in its aural ‘home domain’ if it purports to be de106

This, of course, does not imply that, for instance, film – which has not been discussed in the present essay – owing to its combination of images, words, music and sound, would not surpass an exclusively verbal medium in terms of descriptive scope. 107

One should, however, repeat that no medium is able to completely abolish such areas of indeterminacy and that consequently medial comparison can only refer to degrees of indeterminacy.


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scriptive at all. One must, however, repeat that this is not to deny a basic, albeit restricted descriptive potential of music. Obviously, music has a natural advantage when it comes to describing realities in which acoustic phenomena predominate. It is here also that music can achieve a degree of particularity that is denied to either fiction or the pictorial medium, while the pictorial medium can obtain a descriptive precision with reference to visual objects that cannot be paralleled by either music or literature. An overview of the general descriptive potential of the three media discussed is schematically presented in Figure 2. MEDIUM





hetero-referential, symbolic, dynamic

hetero-referential, iconic (visual), static

self-referential, iconic (aural), dynamic


in principle unlimited


extremely limited


language, processes static, visual phenomena


relatively low for language and processes; relatively high for all other objects

relatively low for static, visual phenomena; relatively high for all other objects

aural phenomena

extremely high, even with reference to aural phenomena

Figure 2: Descriptive potentials of select media – overview

A major result of the foregoing reflections on descriptions was that description is a transmedial phenomenon. In this quality it resembles narrativity. One may even say that it surpasses narrativity in this respect, for the transmedial scope of the frame ‘narrative’ is somewhat limited owing to its higher structural demands. This is also why one would perhaps be more hesitant to apply the frame ‘narrative’ to instrumental music, even to special kinds of instrumental music, than the frame ‘description’. While there is no received instrumental genre that would per se point to narrativity, descriptivity is for instance implied in the very genre of the symphonic poem with its Tonmalerei108. 108

It is also revealing that there is no correspondent term ‘Tonerzählung’.

Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation


Generally, the transmedial quality of description is a challenge to scholars that has hardly been answered in kind, that is, from an interdisciplinary perspective. The present volume is one of the first attempts to remedy this neglect. Although individual contributors will focus on their ‘own’ media, the synopsis of the book as a whole will, hopefully, reveal to what extent an inter- or at least multidisciplinary approach to description is fruitful. The foregoing theoretical considerations as well as the survey of some key media are meant to prepare the ground for this larger enterprise for which the present volume is a first exploration. May further expeditions in the fascinating interdisciplinary field of a transmedial perspective on description follow109.

References Abbate, Carolyn (1991). Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. Adam, Jean-Michel (1993). La Description. Que sais-je? 2783. Paris: Presses universitaires de France. — (1997/2005). Les Textes, types et prototypes: Récit, description, argumentation, explication et dialogue. Paris: Nathan. Alpers, Svetlana (1983). The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. London: John Murray. Altenburg, Detlef (1997). “Programmusik”. Ludwig Finscher, ed. Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Second ed. Kassel/Stuttgart: Bärenreiter/Metzler. Vol. 7. 1821-1844. — (1998). “Symphonische Dichtung”. Ludwig Finscher, ed. Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Second ed. Kassel/Stuttgart: Bärenreiter/Metzler. Vol. 9. 153-168.


An obvious candidate for such further research would be drama which, in spite of the exceptionally wide range of arts and media covered in this volume, is not represented by a contribution. The relationship between drama and description as represented by painting seems to be especially close in the eighteenth-century convention of ‘freezing’ dramatic narrative action into descriptive ‘tableaus’, in particular at emotional climaxes of sentimental plays. Other possibilities of continuing descriptive studies from a transmedial point of view into hitherto unexplored media and genres would be opera, comic strips and possibly also sculpture.


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Nünning, Ansgar, ed. (1998/2004). Metzler Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie: Ansätze – Personen – Grundbegriffe. Stuttgart: Metzler. Pearsall, Judy, ed. (1998). The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford: Clarendon. Pflugmacher, Torsten (2005). “Description”. David Herman, Manfred Jahn, Marie-Laure Ryan, eds. Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge. 101-102. Poe, Edgar Allan (1847/1905). “The Domain of Arnheim”. E. A. Poe. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Ed. Padraic Colum. London: Dent. 31-44. Preminger, Alex, T. V. F. Brogan, eds. (1993). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. Rajewsky, Irina (2000/2003). Intermediales Erzählen in der italienischen Literatur der Postmoderne: Von den giovani scrittori der 80er zum pulp der 90er Jahre. Tübingen: Narr (Berlin dissertation 2000). — (2002). Intermedialität. UTB 2261. Tübingen: Francke. Rasmo, Nicolò, et al. (1981). Die Alpen in der Malerei. Rosenheim: Rosenheimer. Ricardou, Jean (1967). Problèmes du nouveau roman. Collection ‘Tel Quel’. Paris: Seuil. — (1973/1978). Le Nouveau roman. Ecrivains de toujours. Paris: Seuil. Riffaterre, Michael (1981). “Descriptive Imagery”. Yale French Studies 61: 107-125. — (1986). “On the Diegetic Functions of the Descriptive”. Style 20/3: 281-294. Rippl, Gabriele (2005). Beschreibungs-Kunst: Zur intermedialen Poetik angloamerikanischer Ikontexte (1880-2000). Theorie und Geschichte der Literatur und der schönen Künste 110. Munich: Fink. Ronen, Ruth (1997). “Description, Narrative and Representation”. Narrative 5/3: 274-286. Ryan, Marie-Laure, ed. (2004). Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press. Scher, Steven Paul (1970). “Notes Toward a Theory of Verbal Music”. Comparative Literature 22: 52-56. Schmidt, Heinrich, Georgi Schischkoff (1974). Philosophisches Wörterbuch. Stuttgart: Kröner.

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Schneider, Klaus (1999). Lexikon Programmusik: Stoffe und Motive. Kassel: Bärenreiter. Schneider, Norbert (1999). Geschichte der Landschaftsmalerei: Vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Romantik. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. Schweitzer, Albert (1908/1972). J. S. Bach. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel. Scruton, Roger (2001). “Programme Music”. Stanely Sadie, John Tyrrell, eds. The New Grove Dictionary of Music. London: Macmillan. Vol. 20. 396-400. Sternberg, Meir (1981). “Ordering the Unordered: Time, Space, and Descriptive Coherence”. Yale French Studies 61: 60-88. Stoichita, Victor. I. (1993/1998). L’Instauration du tableau. Librairie des Méridiens. Paris: Klincksieck. Das selbstbewußte Bild: Vom Ursprung der Metamalerei. Bild und Text. Transl. Heinz Jatho. Munich: Fink. Telefonbuch Steiermark: Graz/Graz Umgebung (2005/2006). Mödling: Herold. Terrell, Peter, et al., eds. (1981). Collins German-English, EnglishGerman Dictionary/Pons Collins Deutsch-Englisch, EnglischDeutsch. London/Stuttgart: Collins/Klett. Virtanen, Tuija (1992). “Issues of Text Typology: Narrative – a ‘Basic’ Type of Text?”. Text 12: 293-310. Walter, Michael (2000). “Don Juan und die Moderne”. Michael Walter. Richard Strauss und seine Zeit: Große Komponisten und ihre Zeit. Laaber: Laaber. 119-157. Walton, Kendall L. (1990). Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundation of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press. Warning, Rainer (1976). “Elemente einer Pragmasemiotik der Komödie”. Wolfgang Preisendanz, Rainer Warning, eds. Das Komische. Poetik und Hermeneutik 7. Munich: Fink. 279-333. — (2001). “Erzählen im Paradigma: Kontingenzbewältigung und Kontingenzexposition”. Romanistisches Jahrbuch 52: 176-209. Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953/1968). Philosophische Untersuchungen/ Philosophical Investigations. Transl. G. E. M. Anscombe. Second ed. Oxford: Blackwell. Wolf, Werner (1993). Ästhetische Illusion und Illusionsdurchbrechung in der Erzählkunst: Theorie und Geschichte mit Schwer-


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punkt auf englischem illusionsstörenden Erzählen. Buchreihe der Anglia 32. Tübingen: Niemeyer. — (1999). The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality. Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft 35. Amsterdam: Rodopi. — (2001). “The Emergence of Experiential Iconicity and Spatial Perspective in Landscape Descriptions in English Fiction”. Max Nänny, Olga Fischer, eds. The Motivated Sign: Proceedings of the Second Conference on Iconicity, Amsterdam 1999. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 323-350. — (2002a). “Gesichter in der Erzählkunst: Zur Wahrnehmung von Physiognomien und Metawahrnehmung von Physiognomiebeschreibungen aus theoretischer und historischer Sicht am Beispiel englischsprachiger Texte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts”. Sprachkunst 33: 301-325. — (2002b). “Intermediality Revisited: Reflections on Word and Music Relations in the Context of a General Typology of Intermediality”. Suzanne M. Lodato, Suzanne Aspden, Walter Bernhart, eds. Word and Music Studies: Essays in Honor of Steven Paul Scher and on Cultural Identity and the Musical Stage. Word and Music Studies 4. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 13-34. — (2002c). “Das Problem der Narrativität in Literatur, bildender Kunst und Musik: Ein Beitrag zu einer intermedialen Erzähltheorie”. Ansgar Nünning, Vera Nünning, eds. Erzähltheorie transgenerisch, intermedial, interdisziplinär. WVT-Handbücher zum literaturwissenscahftlichen Studium 5. Trier: WVT. 23-104. — (2002d). “‘Speaking faces’? – Zur epistemologischen Lesbarkeit von Physiognomie-Beschreibungen im englischen Erzählen des Modernismus”. Poetica 34: 389-426. — (2003). “Narrative and Narrativity: A Narratological Reconceptualization and its Applicability to the Visual Arts”. Word & Image 19: 180-197. — (2004a). “Aesthetic Illusion as an Effect of Fiction”. Style 48/3: 325-351. — (2004b). “‘Cross the Border – Close that Gap’: Towards an Intermedial Narratology”. European Journal of English Studies (EJES) 8/1 (Beyond Narratology): 81-103. — (2007a). “Metaisierung als transgenerisches und transmediales Phänomen: Ein Systematisierungsversuch metareferentieller

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Formen und Begriffe in Literatur und anderen Medien”. Janine Hauthal, Julijana Nadj, Ansgar Nünning, Henning Peters, eds. Metaisierung in Literatur und anderen Medien: Theoretische Grundlagen – Historische Perspektiven – Metagattungen – Funktionen. Berlin: de Gruyter. 25-64. — (2007b, forthcoming). “Instrumental Metamusic as an Analogy to Literary Metafiction? – An Exploration of the Limits of the Transmedial Field ‘Meta-Referentiality’”. Winfried Nöth, Nina Bishara, eds. Self-Reference in the Media. Berlin: de Gruyter. — (2007c, forthcoming). “Description – a Common Potential of Words and Music?”. David Francis Urrows, ed. Word/Music Adaptations. Word and Music Studies 9. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Description in Literature and Related (Partly) Verbal Media

Towards a Typology, Poetics and History of Description in Fiction Ansgar Nünning While the importance of the concept of description has been widely recognized since the 1980s, the differences between various kinds of descriptions and the changing historical functions they have fulfilled have generally been overlooked. This paper addresses some of the theoretical and typological issues pertaining to the concept of description, providing a typological classification of different kinds of descriptions as well as an outline of the functions they can fulfil in fictional narratives. The first two parts of the paper are devoted to the introduction and definition of the notion of description and to the discussion of some of the problems surrounding it. Section three develops a set of categories for the analysis of, and typological distinction between, different kinds of descriptions. The fourth section provides a brief historical overview of the functions that descriptions have fulfilled in British novels from the end of the seventeenth century to the present. The final section gives a brief summary and suggests that much more work needs to be done.

1. Introducing descriptions and meta-descriptions The neglect it has suffered from both critical theory and narratology notwithstanding, description has been one of the constitutive elements of the ‘rhetoric of fiction’ (sensu W. C. Booth) since the beginnings of the novel. Moreover, descriptions are an integral component of everyday narration as well as of anecdotes, urban legends, and a wide range of literary genres. Many literary narrative texts feature a wide range of different kinds of description, which have as yet not been properly distinguished, mapped, and analyzed. Most readers are likely to intuitively recognize and identify instances of description, ascribing their descriptive quality to features typically associated with the text-type designated description: “an anonymous observer, almost no verbs of action, predicates of state, present tense, a constructed simultaneity” (Ronen 1997: 274). Given the fact that one could produce an endless list of quotations of descriptions, it is striking that narrative theory has accorded only comparatively little attention to these features of narratives, despite their ubiquity in novels, short stories,


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and other kinds of narrative: in spite of its indulgence in theory and terminology, narratology, with only relatively few laudable exceptions1, has not devoted much systematic attention to the forms and functions of descriptions. The three underlying theses of this essay – that we need a more sophisticated and differentiated analytical framework if we want to come to terms with descriptions, that we should distinguish between different kinds of description, and that the forms and functions of description should be historicized by a diachronically oriented narrative theory – are actually confirmed by the few studies that are devoted to this topic: though many attempts have been made to define the phenomenon of description, only few narratologists have tried to distinguish between different kinds of description2. And though quite a number of narrative theorists have become more concerned with many aspects of, and issues involved in, descriptions since the 1980s, there is still a surprising lack of studies examining the use of different forms of description in the works of individual authors, in different genres or in given periods of literary history. Some theorists have mentioned in passing that “texts describe differently in different poetic periods” (Ronen 1997: 275), but little sustained effort has been made to consider such questions as which historical changes in the use of descriptions can be observed and which functions descriptive statements could fulfil in individual cases3. This comparative neglect description has suffered is the starting point of this essay, which will try to bridge the gap by staking out three aims: First of all some theoretical issues involved in coming to grips with description will be introduced and discussed (section 2). Then some steps towards developing an analytical framework, a typology and a poetics of different kinds of description will be presented (section 3), which can then serve as a basis for a survey of the changing functions of descriptions in English novels from the seventeenth to the late twentieth and early twenty-first century (section 4). A short 1

Cf. Chatman (1990: 38-55), who has devoted one chapter (tellingly entitled “Description Is No Textual Handmaiden”) to the phenomenon, as well as Fludernik’s concise, but pioneering observations (Fludernik 1996: 150f., 293, 329, 348). See also the titles listed in the bibliography below.

2 3

Cf. e. g. the typologies offered by Lodge (1977) and Bal (1981-1982).

For one of the few exceptions to this rule, cf. Ibsch (1982), who was one of the first theorists to reflect on the functions of descriptions.

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summary and a brief look at some of the points that future research might explore will complete this article (section 5).

2. Coming to terms with descriptions and the ways in which they are naturalized Although the term ‘description’ has been used in a great number of studies, having become a common and widespread category of literary studies as well as a household word of narrative theory, only few narratologists have analyzed the subject in great detail4. There are arguably two main reasons for this: Firstly, the term ‘description’ is so widely used in English that it seems to be largely self-explanatory, the more so because readers are believed to recognize descriptions intuitively5. Secondly, narrative theory for a long time displayed a strong normative bias towards narrative, regarding description as merely ornamental and relegating it to the margins of scholarly enquiry. Narratological research concerned with description has so far focused on the distinction between narration and description, on some key issues of the theory of description and on structural aspects of its internal organization. In contrast, both the questions of different kinds of description and of historical changes of the functions of description in literary texts (cf. Ibsch 1982) have received scant attention. The same holds true for the question of the role of the reader and the frameworks he or she draws on when naturalizing a text. Though quite a few narrative theorists are by now agreed that descriptive statements can fulfil a variety of textual functions and that the reader plays an important role in filling in the gaps, neither the functions nor the role of the reader have been sufficiently explored. One of the main reasons for the comparative neglect of these two issues is that most of the scholarly work on description has focused on the intricate issue of defining description and of gauging the complex relation that pertains


See the titles listed in the bibliography. For short definitions of the term, cf. Prince (1987: 19), Nünning (1998/2004: 60), and Pflugmacher (2005: 101-102).


Cf. e. g. Hamon (1972: 465): “Le lecteur reconnaît et identifie sans hésiter une description.” Bal (1981-1982: 105): “We recognize them [descriptions] intuitively.”


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between narrative and description6. Though some scholars have convincingly argued that a “clear distinction between narration and description is, of course, untenable” (Cobley 1986: 397)7, many theorists have been preoccupied by the attempt to establish such a clearcut borderline. Since I will therefore focus on other issues that have hitherto been comparatively neglected, two quotations from the entries in the two specialist encyclopaedias of narratology may suffice to recall how the key term of this lecture is generally defined: description. The representation of objects, beings, situations, or […] happenings in their spatial rather than temporal existence, their topological rather than chronological functioning, their simultaneity rather than succession. It is traditionally distinguished from NARRATION and from COMMENTARY. (Prince 1987: 19) Description is a *text-type which identifies the properties of places, objects, or persons (see EXISTENTS). Classical narratology defines description as a narrative pause interrupting the presentation of the chain of *events. (Pflugmacher 2005: 101)

Since Werner Wolf, in his contribution to this volume, not only deals with the problems involved in defining description exhaustively, but also clarifies a broad range of theoretical issues surrounding the concept, it may suffice to briefly recapitulate some of the areas he covers. As Wolf convincingly argues, though description may be a particularly elusive phenomenon, it would be erroneous to assume that it cannot be defined at all. Conceptualizing the descriptive as a cognitive frame and locating it within a sophisticated typology of basic semiotic macro- and micro-modes, genres and media, Wolf provides us with the most wide-ranging discussion of the formal and functional characteristics of it to date. Moreover, he also briefly explores the intricate question of the concretization of descriptive objects in the recipient’s mind (cf. above: chap. 2.7), emphasizing that mediaspecific gaps as well as areas of indeterminacy must be taken into account. What is arguably at least as important as defining and locating description, however, is dealing with other key issues of coming to terms with this seemingly ‘natural’ and self-explanatory, yet curiously complex and elusive theoretical concept. Wolf’s eminently helpful 6

See e. g. Genette (1969), Hamon (1972, 1982), Bal (1981-1982), and Mosher (1991).


See e. g. Kittay (1981), Sternberg (1981), Mosher (1991), and Ronen (1997). Only few theorists have gone so far as Ronen, however, who argues that “the opposition description-narrative […] should be given up” (ibid.: 284).

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terminological distinctions and suggestions shall therefore be augmented by a set of further questions and categories of analysis. First, the role of the reader as well as that of the context, conventions, and frameworks involved in naturalizing descriptions merits some attention; second, the variety of forms in which description can occur have to be taken into account; and third, the question of which functions different forms of description can fulfil has to be addressed. Though an exhaustive account of all the features that contribute to the concretization of descriptive objects in the reader’s mind is an extensive task that is well beyond the scope of this essay, a brief outline of the main factors involved in the process and of the most important concepts that can illuminate it may at least be given. The insights provided by cognitive narratology and “psychonarratology” (Bortolussi/ Dixon 2003) can arguably throw more light on the ways in which descriptions are naturalized in the reading process and in which textual data, conventions, cognitive frameworks and schemata interact. It is worth recalling how the logic of description works. As theorists such as Hamon (1972) and Chatman (1990: 24) have rightly emphasized, the logic and coherence of description are based on metonymy and contiguity: “The metonymic structure may entail the relation of objects to each other as they occur in the world or in the imagination, but also the relation of objects to their own qualities” (Chatman 1990: 24). The description of a house, for instance, tends to presuppose or entail the mentioning of its size, colour, and number of rooms as well as such properties as doors, windows, rooms, etc. which constitute the house. The principles of metonymy and contiguity enable readers or listeners to infer and project the constitutive features that belong to a described object even if these are not enumerated in a description. In addition, conventions, frames, and “quasi-mimetic schemata” (Sternberg 1981: 66) ensure that the reader’s world-knowledge will fill many of the gaps that every description is bound to leave. It is the “quasi-mimetic logic, anchored in reality-models and object-schemata” (ibid.: 68), that enables the reader to infer and predict the presence of certain descriptive elements from the explicit mention of others. Michael Riffaterre has introduced a theoretically and heuristically useful concept which enhances our understanding of the logic of description, viz. the notion of ‘descriptive systems’, which he defines as follows: […] descriptive systems are more complex than the presupposition network, but in their simpler form they are very close to the dictionary definition of their kernel


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words. The descriptive system is a network of words associated with one another around a kernel word, in accordance with the sememe of that nucleus. Each component of the system functions as a metonym of the nucleus. So strong are these relationships that any such metonym can serve as a metaphor for the ensemble, and at any point in the text where the system is made implicit, the reader can fill in gaps in an orderly way and reconstitute the whole representation from that metonym in conformity with the grammar of the pertinent stereotypes. (Riffaterre 1978: 39-40)

Due to the metonymic logic of descriptive systems, descriptions of places, persons, and objects inevitably cue readers to activate the appropriate real-world contextual frames8. From the point of view of the dynamics of the reading process, descriptions do not represent givens but constructs, relying on a wide range of inferences by the reader9. The way in which readers fill in gaps very much depends on the coherence implied in, or provided by, frames, schemata, and other prefabricated codes (e. g. clichés, commonplaces, stereotypes), i. e. on cognitive “knowledge representations that store specific configurations” (Herman 2002: 270) of, e. g., places, objects, or participants in a given situation. These frames and knowledge representations not only shape the ways in which readers actualize and concretize descriptive objects in analogy to the respective real-life phenomena, they also constrain the ways in which a description can be plausibly naturalized. Evelyn Cobley has succinctly summarized what is involved here: On the most basic level […], the verbal description takes its organization first of all from the ways in which objects are organized in the real world. This referential motivation imposes an order on description that appears to be natural and inevitable. […] description models itself on principles of coherence that have already been organized by our culture. […] Every description thus appeals more or less explicitly to orders of knowledge that organize our everyday world. (Cobley 1986: 401-402)

In addition to these referential constraints, however, there are also other codes and conventions which influence the selection of descriptive elements, the overall coherence of a description, and the ways in which readers fill in gaps and naturalize descriptions. One of these 8

For the notion of ‘contextual frames’, cf. Emmott (1997). For detailed investigations of naturalizing strategies, cf. Fludernik (1996), Herman (2002) and Bortolussi/ Dixon (2003).


Cf. Sternberg (1981: 73): “As such, action and description form not givens but inferences, constructs”. Cf. also Herman (2002: 265f., 269f., 297f.) and Bortolussi/ Dixon (2003: 186-190).

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conventions is “that of realism or verisimilitude” (Chatman 1990: 25). Though these frames also depend on the referentiality of the text, i. e. on the assumption that the text refers to, or is at least compatible with, the so-called real world, they not only activate the reader’s general world-knowledge but also his or her knowledge of literary conventions. Therefore, another contextual framework relevant to the naturalization of descriptions involves a number of specifically literary frames of reference. These include, for example, general literary conventions, conventions and models of literary genres, and stereotyped models of ‘flat’ characters such as the picaro, the miles gloriosus, but also elements from complex, ‘round’ characters (cf. Chatman 1990: 25f.). It is very important not to forget these specifically literary or generic considerations if one wants to account for the ways in which readers concretize or project descriptions in the reading process, the more so because the use of description varies a great deal from one genre to the other – an often neglected issue that we will return to later. Cognitive approaches to narrative can further illuminate the ways in which readers construct mental models, i. e. the process of cognitive mapping that assigns referents both a position in the storyworld and certain properties (cf. Herman 2002). In their Psychonarratology, Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon (2003) have developed three useful categories that can throw more light on the internal logic of descriptions, on the ways the latter are naturalized in the reading process, and on the constraints involved therein: “These categories are descriptive reference frames, positional constraints, and perceptual attributions” (ibid.: 186). Bortolussi and Dixon convincingly argue that there “can be no description of anything that does not have implications for spatial vantage point” (ibid.). Whenever a description is rendered in a novel, there are various textual clues that indicate spatial positioning. The notion of descriptive reference frames refers to “a set of axes that determine how spatial and relational information in a perceptual description is conveyed” (ibid.) and that enable the reader to infer the “‘descriptive position’” (ibid.: 187) or location from which the description presumably originates. They argue that texts usually contain linguistic features that constrain the projection of such a descriptive position: “Typically, perceptually salient descriptions imply some constraint on the location of the agent who might have perceived the information.” (Ibid.: 188) In the process of naturalizing a description, readers tend to construct a mental represen-


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tation of the scenario, including the object described, the perceiver and his or her putative location or position in the scene. Representing a rendering of perceptual information, descriptions project “perceptual knowledge that may also be attributed to characters in the story world” (ibid.). Bortolussi and Dixon “refer to the cues that support such inferences as perceptual attribution features.” (Ibid.) In sum, from the perspective of cognitive narratology and psychonarratology, descriptions are anything but a neutral representation of places, characters, and objects in a narrative that are primarily determined by textual data. In addition to the information and stimuli provided by the text itself, the reader also draws on extratextual frames of reference in the attempt to construct mental representations of the objects that are described. The naturalization of description thus depends, for instance, on the cultural models, conceptual frameworks and prior knowledge of literary conventions that readers bring to the text and that they use to impose coherence and meaning on descriptions. One can even go so far as to argue that description “only reactivates the reader’s memory of something he or she already knows, or it adds previously unknown information to an existing stock of knowledge” (Cobley 1986: 398). The concepts of cognitive mapping, contextual frames, descriptive systems, descriptive reference frames, positional constraints, and perceptual attributions can provide more insight into the key elements involved in the naturalization of descriptions. Two examples from the class of ‘metadescription’, which will be more fully explained later on, may serve to illustrate some of these rather abstract considerations. Instead of providing a description himself, the narrator in P. G. Wodehouse’s comic novel Pigs Have Wings merely refers the reader back to other descriptions of similar scenes, thus cueing him or her to activate the appropriate frame. The authorial narrator in J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello confines himself to enumerating some stereotypical features of the main character’s outward appearance, openly referring to them as “signs of moderate realism”, and appeals to the reader or narratee to “supply the particulars”. He even goes so far as to mention the name of the author who pioneered the narrative procedures known as “formal realism” (Watt 1957/1972: 34-35), thereby not only breaking the aesthetic illusion but at the same time also laying bare the conventionality, artificiality and contingency of description itself:

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The reader will be able to picture the scene if he throws his mind back to descriptions he has read of the sort of thing that used to go on in those salons of the eighteenth century. (Wodehouse 1952/1957: 191) The blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe. (Coetzee 2003/2004: 4)

As these two examples underscore, textual data and the reader’s world-knowledge always interact in the reading process. A writer can give a detailed view of a place, scene or character by listing as many descriptive elements as s/he deems necessary or appropriate, a procedure pioneered by Defoe and Richardson and brought to perfection by the great tradition of realist novelists in the nineteenth century. But s/he can just as well dispense with providing the particulars of the object of description, relying on the internal logic of descriptive systems and the reader’s memory and merely cueing the reader to activate the appropriate contextual frames. By appealing to the reader to complete the picture and work it out for him- or herself, novelists like Wodehouse and Coetzee foreground both “the arbitrary process of selection and arrangement which descriptions usually try to conceal” (Cobley 1986: 400) and the processes involved in the reader’s concretization of described objects and in the concomitant construction of mental representations. One can therefore posit a graded scale between the poles of bottom-up, data-driven description on the one hand and top-down, frame-driven descriptions on the other. The type designated as bottom-up, data-driven description is characterized by a plenitude of details and descriptive elements about the object in question. By contrast, top-down, frame-driven descriptions rely much more heavily on the metonymic logic of descriptive systems and contextual frames, merely cueing readers to activate the appropriate contextual frames by providing only so much information about the phenomenon in question as to enable readers to identify the respective real-life object. Theories of description should therefore be reconceptualized in a cognitive and pragmatic framework that takes into consideration both the world-model and knowledge in the mind of the reader and the interplay between textual and extratextual information. One of the main problems of most of the theories of, and research on, description currently available is that they tend to be mostly concerned with description in general, i. e. with “the text-type Description” (Chatman 1990: 30), rather than with the actual plethora of


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different kinds and historical manifestations of the text-type and narrative mode (cf. Bonheim 1982, 1990) usually subsumed under this wide, arguably all-too-wide, umbrella term. The main reason for this may be traced back to the preferences of structuralist narratology, especially its interest in, and search for, general or even universal rules of narrative, which has served to suppress interest in historical differences (cf. Ronen 1997: 277). While many narrative theorists have hazarded generalized observations on the structural properties of description and the opposition between narration and description, only very few have bothered to examine the actual multiplicity and variety of different kinds of description. In one of the best articles on the subject, Ronen (1997: 276), for instance, observes in passing “that there is a whole range of ways to describe with very little ground in common”, but neither she nor most other narrative theorists who have written on the subject have outlined distinctions between different types of descriptions or developed an analytical framework for coming to terms with them. There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule, most notably Gerald Prince, Mieke Bal and José Manuel Lopes. Prince (1987: 19) merely provides a more or less random and open list of various types of description without making any attempt to systematize them or to elaborate on the heterogeneous criteria: “A description can be more or less detailed and precise; objective or subjective; typical and stylized or, on the contrary, individualizing; decorative or explanatory/functional”. Integrating earlier models by Hamon (1972), Lodge (1977) and Maarten van Buuren, and developing them further, Bal (19811982) somewhat more systematically differentiates between six types of description, for which she has coined fairly self-explanatory terms, viz. “The Referential, Encyclopedic Description”, “The ReferentialRhetoric Description”, “Metaphoric Contiguity”, “The Systematized Metaphor”, “The Contiguous Metaphor”, and “The Series of Metaphors” (Bal 1981-1982: 122-123). By contrast, in his pioneering monograph Foregrounded Description in Prose Fiction, Lopes (1995) outlines an analytical framework for investigating different kinds of description, proposing a heuristically fruitful distinction between three main levels of inquiry: […] a stylistic level, where description is analysed at a micro-sentence level; a discursive level, where analysis focuses on the internal organization of larger descriptive segments/blocks; and a functional level, where […] we can focus on the functions description might fulfil in the context of a given work. (Lopes 1995: 20)

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Though he readily admits that these “levels are bound to be closely intertwined” (ibid.), he convincingly demonstrates how productive his framework is as a theoretical and heuristic device. Taking my cue, or indeed cues, from Prince, Bal and Lopes, as well as from Fludernik, Ronen, and Wolf, I should like to suggest that in order to come to terms with the variety of descriptions we encounter in literary narratives from different periods, what we need is an even more refined framework of analytical categories which allows us to distinguish between different kinds of descriptions. Instead of being more or less identical or similar tokens of one prototype, the forms and functions of descriptions arguably vary a lot across different genres and periods. In order to be able to distinguish different forms of description, we need an analytical and terminological framework, which I will try to outline in the next section.

3. An outline of an analytical framework: steps towards a typology, poetics, and history of different forms of description The following distinctions between different forms of description are based on a number of criteria mostly adapted from Wolf’s (1993: esp. 220-259) groundbreaking study Ästhetische Illusion und Illusionsdurchbrechung in der Erzählkunst, in which Wolf develops a typology of narrative self-referentiality which helps to differentiate between various types of metafiction and the potential effect of each. Wolf’s typology is based on three parameters: the form of mediation, contextual relation, and contents value (cf. ibid.: 230). The first criterion, form of mediation, refers to the level of narration the speaker engaged in metafictional reflections can be situated on. According to the second criterion, contextual relation, different forms of metafiction can be distinguished depending on whether they appear in a central or marginal position within the text under discussion, on how deeply they are interrelated with the narrated story, on whether they appear only in singular instances or in clusters, and on how clearly the metafictional aspects of the comment are marked. Using Wolf’s third criterion, contents value, one can differentiate between various forms of explicit metafiction, i. e. according to the questions whether metafiction refers to the ‘fictio or the fictum status’ (cf. ibid.: 231) of a passage (the medial nature of a text or its reference/non-reference to


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reality), if it contains comments on the entire text or only on parts of it, if the commentary is on the text itself, on literature in general, or on another text, and if the discussion of the aesthetic subject takes a rather critical view of it or not. The detailed typology that Wolf (ibid.: 220-265.) develops on the basis of these criteria does not only fill a gap in research on metafiction but can also be applied to the field of description, provided some modifications and additions are made. While Wolf is primarily concerned with determining the potential destruction of aesthetic illusion through various forms of explicit metafiction, the main aim of the following considerations is to develop a set of descriptive, or rather meta-descriptive, categories for analyzing descriptions in literary narratives as well as for differentiating between various types of description. Out of the large range of criteria that might be relevant for a typological differentiation of various types of description, it is primarily the following which are particularly productive and relevant. Using Wolf’s criteria and Lopes’ fruitful distinction between different levels of analyses as starting points, one can distinguish between different kinds of description on at least five levels of inquiry: (a) a communicative or discursive level, which focuses on the structure of narrative mediation; (b) a stylistic level, where descriptions are analysed from a linguistic point of view; (c) a structural or syntagmatic level, where analysis focuses on the internal organization of descriptions and on their relations with non-descriptive parts of a narrative; (d) a thematic and paradigmatic level; (e) a receptionoriented and functional level. This allows us to distinguish between dominantly formal, stylistic, structural, and content-related subcategories of description. These can then be augmented and differentiated by reception-oriented and functional criteria. 1. In terms of form and narrative mediation, various narratological types of description can be differentiated according to the communication level on which the descriptor10, i. e., the descriptive agent or textual speaker who provides a given description, is situated. Using the communication level of the speaker as a starting point, the resulting difference is between dominantly diegetic and dominantly extradiegetic forms of description. In the first case, the description can be attributed to one of the characters of the 10

For the use of the technical term ‘descriptor’, cf. Wolf (2005: 19, 21).

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narrated world; in the second, descriptive statements come from a narrator who describes the setting, characters, or existents of the storyworld from a higher vantage-point on the communication level of narrative transmission. Theoretically, descriptions can also be given on a hypo- and a metadiegetic level of communication. Although characters on the intradiegetic communication level of the story frequently describe other characters, places or objects, it is particularly the extradiegetic level of discourse, which is of central importance in the present context. A second distinction, which is closely related to the first, is the one between character-oriented and narratee-oriented types of descriptions. The question here is whether one of the characters on the diegetic level of the story is the addressee of a description or whether it is primarily addressed to the narratee, i. e. the narrator’s counterpart on the extradiegetic level of communication. Though every description is, of course, ultimately directed at the real reader, it does make a difference whether and which characters are aware of the information provided by a given description. A third formal criterion which can serve to distinguish between different narratological types of description is the question of whether descriptions emanate from a heterodiegetic, covert narrator situated outside of the level of the characters or whether they are focalized from the point of view of one of the characters whose sense perceptions they represent. On the basis of this criterion one can posit a distinction between externally and internally focalized types of descriptions. Whereas the former is typically associated with conveying potentially objective or at least reliable information about the existents and facts of the fictional world, the latter kind of description, which becomes predominant in the Victorian fin de siècle and the modernist novel, tends to be much more tinged with a subjective bias and potential unreliability. The main reason for this is that what internally focalized descriptions represent are not factually objective pieces of information about the textual actual world, but rather the character-focalizer’s subjective perceptions and impressions, i. e. something occurring in his or her consciousness or mind. In order to determine whether a given description is externally or internally focalized, the reader needs to gauge whether it is possible and plausible to anchor the described object as well as the order in which the descriptive elements are rendered in some character’s or observer’s point of view (cf.


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Sternberg 1981: 85). The representations provided via internally focalized descriptions often tend to “reflect little more than the fallibility and fantasies of the mediating perspective” (ibid.: 86). A similar effect to that resulting from descriptions from the point of view of an unreliable focalizer or ‘flawed filter’ is achieved when unreliable narrators provide descriptions. Fourthly, and closely related to the two previous criteria, monoperspective forms of description can and should be distinguished from multi-perspective descriptions. Lopes (1995: 22) explains what is involved here: Generally speaking, nineteenth-century descriptions are constructed as monoperspective, cohesive, and coherent blocks that contribute, at times, to an effect of visualization.

By contrast, like many instances of internally focalized descriptions or descriptions given by an unreliable narrator, the kind designated as multi-perspective also serves to redirect the reader’s attention from the objects and facts of the story to the problems of observation, representation, mediation and narration. Even if narrators do not explicitly thematize the process of description and narration, which they can do in different ways, intensity, and detail, they can still foreground problems of description by resorting to multi-perspective descriptions. This is usually particularly effective when the perspectives offered on a given character, place or object fail to add up to a coherent image or representation: “This usually occurs whenever, in a descriptive block, the ‘descriptive voice’ opts for conveying a multiplicity of visual perspectives of the same object(s)” (Lopes 1995: 22). 2. On a second level of inquiry one can distinguish types of description on the basis of linguistic and stylistic criteria11. First, explicit types of description have to be distinguished from implicit or implied forms, a distinction for which the linguistic mode of mediation can serve as a criterion. Chatman (1990: 28) argues that we can distinguish at least three ways in which Description may be rendered by a text’s surface: (1) Assertions […]. (2) Nonassertive mentions or inclusions […]. (3) Elliptical implications. 11

For a discussion of some aspects on the stylistic level, cf. Lopes (1995: 20-22), who gives a brief overview of the aspects that can be analyzed on this level and to whom I am indebted for the distinction between the stylistic, discursive and functional levels of inquiry.

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Whereas direct assertions are characteristic of the explicit type of description, implicit varieties tend to be non-assertive, relying rather on implications or inferences that the reader has to draw on the basis of his world-knowledge. A second linguistic, or rather stylistic, criterion for differentiation is the linguistic form in which descriptions are realized. According to this criterion, metaphoric and non-metaphoric forms of description can be distinguished12. Classical examples of metaphoric descriptions of characters are the great many instances of animal imagery that English novelists from Dickens to P. G. Wodehouse are so famous for. In non-metaphoric description, conversely, characters, places and objects are referred to directly and literally. 3. In addition to the discursive and linguistic types of description discussed so far, yet other kinds can be distinguished on a third level of inquiry, i. e. a structural or syntagmatic level. In order to differentiate between various types of description, structural criteria referring to the relation between the descriptive passages of a novel and its other parts have to be considered13. In this context, the position, frequency, and structural integration of descriptive segments are relevant. Structurally determined types of description can on the one hand be distinguished according to the quantitative relations of the descriptive and the non-descriptive parts. On the other hand, qualitative criteria like the syntagmatic and semantic integration of descriptions in the narrated story can serve as criteria for a further typological differentiation and meta-description of the various forms of description. Therefore, the first question to be asked concerning structural forms of description is in which position descriptions appear in a novel. With the help of this criterion marginal forms of description can be differentiated from central ones. Marginal varieties include those which are located at the beginning or at the end of a text, a form which has been common since the beginnings of the novel in the Renaissance. Conversely, descriptions located in more central 12 13

For a detailed analysis of this issue, cf. Bal (1982).

Cf. Wolf (1993: 239-247), who refers to these structurally defined forms as ‘contextually determined types of explicit metafiction’ and who differentiates between various types of metafictional comments, which will be adapted and modified in the following.


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positions can be found within an ongoing story. Examples of works in which descriptions occur primarily in marginal positions are most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English novels, e. g. Aphra Behn’s and Daniel Defoe’s. From the nineteenth-century realist novel onwards, description is also used repeatedly and more frequently in more central positions throughout the narrative. The descriptive dimension thus plays a much greater role in the nineteenth-century realist novel on account of the central position of the descriptions, an effect that is enhanced by the following features. Secondly, block descriptions can be distinguished from distributed descriptions. The underlying criterion here is whether descriptive information is given in one piece or rather disseminated throughout a narrative text. Whereas block descriptions were the dominant mode of introducing characters and places in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel, such “set pieces of description went out of fashion with the Modernist novel” (Chatman 1990: 26). As Wolf (in his contribution to this volume: 54) points out, up to the nineteenth century it was standard practice “that main characters received an en-bloc description by the narrator at their first appearance in the storyworld”. Later on, as a result of modernist novelists’ preference for internally focalized descriptions, descriptive segments tend to be distributed throughout the text (cf. Mosher 1991: 436). Third, the quantitative criteria of frequency of descriptions and of their extent compared to the narrative proper can help to distinguish between novels in which description only occurs rarely and in points, and those which feature frequent and extensive forms of description. Whereas ‘frequency’ refers to the number and regularity of descriptive passages in a given novel, ‘extent’ refers to the question of how long they are and what amount of space descriptions tend to occupy. Although both criteria can be differentiated in theory, they tend to be intrinsically connected in practice. This is mainly due to the fact that increasing frequency and increasing extent or length result in a higher degree of importance of the descriptive dimension. Novels in which a limited number of descriptions can only be found sporadically include most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century novels, especially e. g. the picaresque novel, which focus on the plot and the adventures of the protagonist. From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, how-

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ever, descriptions occur much more frequently and extensively, not only in nineteenth-century realist novels and works belonging to the naturalist school (e. g. Gissing’s novels) but also in Gothic novels and historical novels, all of which can be considered as typical examples of extensive and marked forms of description. However, their functions may differ significantly, an issue to which we will return later. It may be mentioned in passing that the criteria of frequency and extent of descriptions also serve to highlight the significant differences in these respects between various narrative genres. In contrast to other genres and media, in novels description never informs an entire work, not even in the French nouveau roman, though the frequency and length of descriptions can vary a great deal. According to different degrees of frequency, intensity and extent of description, narrative genres could be graded on a scale in which the poles represent e. g. the fairytale and the nouveau roman. As Max Lüthi (1984/1987: 20) has shown in his seminal book, “the compulsion to describe is alien to” the fairy tale; beauty, for instance, “is almost never made specific”. The overall effect is therefore one of a lack of specificity and a comparatively low degree of individualization. In the case of the nouveau roman, on the other hand, descriptions are so frequent and extensive that they virtually seem to inform almost the entire novel. And yet, as theorists like Sternberg (1981) and Lopes (1995) have rightly pointed out, the nouveau roman also challenges the traditional distinction between narration and description. Other genres in which description tends to figure prominently, often being the overriding text-type, include industrial and social novels, travelogues, travel guides and lyric poems14. A fourth structural criterion to differentiate between various structurally defined types of description is the degree of structural, as well as semantic, integration or isolation of the descriptive segments vis-à-vis the narrated story. In the case of integrated forms of description, there is a close syntagmatic connection between the descriptive passages of a text and its other parts, whereas isolated forms are characterized by a clear-cut division between descriptive and non-descriptive passages. Any number of typical examples of the non-integrated type can be found in the kind of “identifiable 14

Cf. e. g. Sternberg (1981: 73) and Chatman (1990: 23).


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textual blocks” (Lopes 1995: 22) providing descriptions of characters and settings that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century realist novels abound in. In contradistinction to this clear separation of actual plot and description, the extensive descriptions one encounters in modernist novels tend to be “disseminated throughout the text” (ibid.) and inextricably bound up with the discourse as well as with the story. Closely linked to the question of the degree of syntagmatic connection is a fifth structural criterion, i. e. the degree of contextual plausibility to which descriptions can be linked up with, or derived from, the narrated story. By means of this criterion, motivated or functional and unmotivated forms of description can be distinguished. While in the case of motivated description, the action or the discourse itself provide a plausible reason for the fact that a descriptive segment is introduced, the concept of largely unmotivated forms of description applies when characters or narrators give descriptions without any obvious connection between the latter and the events of the story. Descriptions tend to be apparently realistically (e. g. psychologically) motivated mainly in those novels in which they are either focalized through one of the characters or closely tied up with the experiences made by the narrator – for example in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), respectively. In contrast to these examples, there are cases of predominantly unmotivated and isolated descriptions in which the reader needs to establish the connection between these segments and the narrated story him- or herself. A case in point are many of the authorial narrator’s intrusions in novels like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) and John Berger’s G. (1972), in which the heterodiegetic narrators repeatedly break the primary illusion of characters and events by providing descriptions as well as metafictional and metanarrative comments. Concerning the differentiation between motivated and unmotivated forms of description, there are general differences between both homo- and heterodiegetic narration, and internally and externally focalized types of description as well. Since a homodiegetic narrator by definition tells a story in which she or he plays a (more or less) central role, the descriptive expressions can always be set in relation to the narrated character due to the identity between the narrating I and the experiencing I in homodiegetic narration.

Towards a Typology, Poetics and History of Description in Fiction


Therefore, not only is the narrative process of a first-person narrator a part of the fictitious world of the characters, but his/her narration as well as his/her descriptions tend to be more or less clearly motivated in the story world. The same holds true for internally focalized descriptions. Heterodiegetic narrators, in contrast, report the fictitious story from an outsider’s perspective. Since the direct connection to the story level is missing here, descriptions given by heterodiegetic narrators and external focalizers tend to be less strongly motivated than those of first-person narrators and character focalizers. 4. Formal, stylistic and structural differentiations can be supplemented by content-related forms of description: here, the criterion for differentiation is the object to which the description refers. The wide variations of content may help determine the different possibilities of functionalizing descriptions in a given novel. As the preceding discussion has hopefully served to show, Wolf’s criteria for a taxonomic classification of explicit metafiction also provide useful clues for a systematization of different kinds or types of description. But to do justice to the particular contents of descriptive segments, other categories concerning the objects of description and related problems have to be included as well. Depending on the subject area and on the selection of the objects that are typically described in fiction, various content-related forms of description can be distinguished. It is obvious, however, that in terms of possible referents of descriptions, the possibilities of differentiation are almost endless. Therefore, this area resists systematization and classification, not least because all aspects or existents of the storyworld can potentially become the object of a description. These include not only places, characters and objects, but also dreams, projects, ideas, as well as other phenomena belonging to the internal world of consciousness and the imagination. Identifying typical objects of description, Wolf, in his contribution to this volume (see 25), points out that descriptions tend to focus on concrete, static, and spatial phenomena, e. g. places, characters, physiognomies, and objects, rather than on abstract notions, feelings, or bodily sensations, though the latter cannot be excluded from the possible objects of description. First, content-related types of description can be distinguished according to the scope of the descriptive references and details, ranging from selective to comprehensive description. Crucial


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points here are the thematic breadth of references and the question of in how detailed a manner the respective objects are described. Selective types are characterized by their limitation to one or just a few significant details. In contrast to this, comprehensive or detailed descriptions attempt to identify and enumerate the largest possible spectrum of properties of the place, object or character to be described. A second content-related criterion is the question of which level or aspect of a narrative descriptions refer to. In this context, one can differentiate between story-oriented and discourse-oriented description. In the case of the story-oriented variety, descriptions focus on phenomena of the narrated story. Conversely, discourse-oriented description can be found in those comments which refer to phenomena on the level of narrative transmission, including descriptions of the narrator, the narratee, and aspects of the narrative process. On the basis of this criterion, one can distinguish between speaker-oriented or expressive types of description, and reader-oriented or appellative varieties. Whereas in the case of expressive forms (which can be found aplenty in Henry Fielding’s novels) such self-reflexive comments refer primarily to the narrator, phatic and appellative varieties focus on keeping the appellative channel up or on addressing or describing the narratee, respectively. Countless examples of reader-oriented or appellative forms of description can be found in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67) and Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper (1936). Third, another content-related distinction can be made between intratextual and intertextual or intermedial description, depending on whether a descriptive remark refers to other elements of the same text or to other texts. Though descriptions typically refer to phenomena of the text in which they occur, there is no need why this should be so. As the plethora of examples of ekphrasis, for instance, serves to illustrate, they can just as well describe objects that do not play a central role in the novel of which they are a part. A fourth content-related distinction can be made on the basis of varying degrees of self-reflexivity with which descriptions are given. This can serve to distinguish between unselfconscious and self-reflexive forms of description. Although descriptions generally tend to result in momentary digressions from the narrated story, both the degree of digression and the degree of selfconsciousness with which the latter is thematized or foregrounded

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can vary considerably. In contrast to the widespread equation of description with neutral or even objective representation, what needs to be emphasized is that this is, of course, merely a convention. Lanser (1981: 176) uses the category “narrative selfconsciousness” in the sense of narrative self-reflexivity or description: “We can posit a succeeding continuum of diminishing selfconsciousness of the narrative act.” (Ibid.: 177) According to the model she puts forward, different levels of intensity of narrative, and, one might add, self-reflexivity, with regards to description can be graded on a scale in which the poles represent a welldefined level of “narrative self-consciousness” and “narrative unconsciousness” (which she defines as “narrators who show not the slightest awareness of a narratee or a communicative context”; ibid.), respectively. If description itself becomes the subject of a self-reflexive metanarrative comment, and is thus laid bare as a device, one can speak of foregrounded description or ‘meta-description’. Typical examples of this would be the highly self-reflexive passages from the novels by P. G. Wodehouse and J. M. Coetzee quoted in the first section of this essay. Although there are several precursors for this phenomenon, even in the nineteenth-century realist novel, it is such genres as the comic novel and postmodernist metafiction in which one typically encounters such meta-descriptions. The kind of meta-description that occurs frequently in twentieth-century novels foregrounds reflections about the arbitrariness and contingency of any description. The fifth content-related criterion focuses on the descriptor’s assessment of his/her own descriptive competence, resulting in the differentiation between affirmative and undermining description, i. e. between those forms of description which express the narrator’s confidence, and those forms in which the narrator’s insecurity and self-doubt concerning the act of description become obvious, with many gradual stages in between15. The descriptions provided by authorial narrators in eighteenth-century and most Victorian novels are prototypes of the affirmative type of description, whereas


As far as I know, this criterion was introduced by Lanser (1981: 178), who refers to this scale as the “axis of self-confidence”, with “confidence” and “uncertainty” as its poles.


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the narrator’s belief in his/her own descriptive as well as narrative competence has declined in many twentieth-century novels. One early typical example of an incompetent narrator is the servant Gabriel Betteredge in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868). Despite many attempts, he never really succeeds in telling a coherent story, and he openly admits his narrative and descriptive incompetence. A particularly extreme example of undermining description can be found in Patrick McGrath’s neogothic novel The Grotesque, in which the psychopathic first-person narrator utters his doubts about his ability to portray events and existents in a precise, coherent, and objective manner in one of his many selfreflexive, meta-narrative as well as meta-descriptive, comments about his rather limited descriptive and narrative competence: So I [...] try to construct for you as full and coherent an account as I can of how things got this way. You must forgive me if I appear at times to contradict myself, or in other ways violate the natural order of the events I am disclosing; this business of selecting and organizing one’s memories so as to describe precisely what happened is a delicate, perilous undertaking, and I’m beginning to wonder whether it may not be beyond me. (McGrath 1990: 114)

This distinction between affirmative and undermining description thus concerns the question of whether and how a descriptor assesses the quality of his descriptions. Affirmative kinds of description tend to be non-critical in that they represent descriptive statements in which no evaluation is expressed, reflecting the narrator’s positive attitude to his/her own description as well as to conventionalized forms of description in general. In contrast to this, critical types of description are characterized by a narrator who distances himself/herself from prevalent conventions or treats them with irony. This is repeatedly the case in B. S. Johnson’s novels, for instance, as becomes obvious in the narrator’s ironic criticism of stereotypical portrayals of characters. The following quotation from B. S. Johnson’s experimental novel Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973), which can stand for many other examples, reflects the narrator’s critical and sceptical attitude to the conventions of realism: An attempt should be made to characterise Christie’s appearance. I do so with diffidence, in the knowledge that such physical descriptions are rarely of value in a novel. It is one of the limitations; and there are so many others. Many readers, I should not be surprised to learn if appropriate evidence were capable of being researched, do not read such descriptions at all, but skip to the next dialogue or more readily assimilable section. (Johnson 1984: 51)

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5. Apart from the formal, stylistic, structural, and content-related criteria, a fifth group of reception-oriented, or functionally determined, forms of description has to be taken into consideration. Here, the main criteria are the potential effects and functions of descriptive segments. It is generally assumed that an accumulation of descriptions contributes considerably to the creation of the aesthetic illusion, to what Roland Barthes (1968/1982) felicitously christened the ‘reality effect’ (l’effet de réel). Descriptions are indeed admirably suited to create a strong illusion of reality, to provide readers with detailed information, and to authenticate the storyworld (cf. Cobley 1986: 396; Lopes 1995: 11). From the point of view of reader-response criticism, one can first of all distinguish between descriptions which seem to be transparent and easy to naturalize and those that are not. The latter might be termed opaque descriptions. Whereas transparent descriptions pose no difficulty for the reader who tries to concretize the phenomenon that is described, opaque descriptions are much more difficult for the recipient to naturalize. In the context of frame theory, the mechanism by the help of which readers actualize and concretize objects that are described in novels can be understood as a set of interpretive strategies or a cognitive process of the sort that has come to be known as ‘naturalization’ (cf. Fludernik 1996), which makes textual phenomena intelligible in terms of culturally accepted frames. Second, the most important question to be asked from a readeroriented and functional perspective is whether descriptions serve to underscore the aesthetic illusion and the reality effect, serving as an authenticating device, or whether they undermine them. Most forms of description serve to create coherence and to support the illusion of authenticity or verisimilitude of the narrated story without impairing the primary illusion referring to the storyworld. This is particularly the case in the detailed story-oriented forms of description found in many seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury novels, in which descriptions often serve as a prominent authenticating strategy. Since the 1970s, however, descriptions and metadescriptions often tend to be used as a metafictional means of destroying the aesthetic illusion. Third, as far as their possible functions are concerned, decorative descriptions can be distinguished from explanatory descrip-


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tion16. Whereas the former type is merely ornamental, the latter type of description fulfils some recognizable function within the narrative. Prince (1987: 19) throws some light on what these functions might be: [...] establishing the tone or mood of a passage, conveying plot-relevant information, contributing to characterization, introducing or reinforcing a theme, symbolizing a conflict to come.

Though one should beware to assume that descriptions are generally merely an ornamental device, it would be equally misleading to posit such a wide range of functions for every description. The criteria developed here are not primarily useful for classifying novels, chapters or parts of them according to various subforms of description. Rather, they are intended to provide an elaborated analytical framework for a precise metatextual description of the poetics of different types of descriptions. The following matrix summarizes the most important types of description, providing an overview of the criteria for differentiation on which the preceding classification is based. Types or kinds of description

Criteria for determining these types

I. Formal, discursive and narratological types of description

Communication level and mode of narrative mediation

1. diegetic vs. extradiegetic description vs. hypodiegetic vs. metadiegetic description

textual level on which the descriptor is situated, i. e. mediation situated on the level of story, on the level of discourse/ narrative transmission, or on further framing or embedded levels addressee of a description

2. character-oriented vs. narrateeoriented descriptions 3. externally focalized vs. internally focalized description 4. mono-perspective vs. multiperspective description

kind of focalization through which descriptive information is conveyed perspectival mode of description; number of focalizers and perspectives

16 Cf. Genette (1966: 156-157), who distinguishes between ‘ornamental description’ and ‘significative description’.

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II. Linguistic and stylistic types of description

Linguistic and stylistic form with which a description is rendered

5. explicit vs. implicit description 6. metaphoric vs. non-metaphoric description

degree of linguistic explicitness stylistic form in which description is realized

III. Structural types of description

Quantitative and qualitative relationship of descriptive and non-descriptive parts of the text and syntagmatic integration of descriptions in the narrated story

7. marginal vs. central description

position of the descriptive segment in a novel concentration/dissemination of descriptive segments frequency and extent of descriptions compared to the narrated story degree of integration of a given description in, or isolation from, the narrated story degree to which the action or the discourse itself provide a plausible reason for the description

8. set/block vs. distributed description 9. brief vs. extensive description 10. integrated vs. isolated description

11. motivated vs. unmotivated description IV. Content-related types of description

The ‘object’ of descriptive segments

12. selective vs. comprehensive description 13. story-oriented vs. discourse-oriented description as well as expressive and appellative kinds of description 14. intratextual vs. intertextual or intermedial description

scope of descriptive references and details level and aspect of a narrative that descriptions dominantly refer to

15. unselfconscious vs. self-reflexive/foregrounded metadescription 16. affirmative vs. undermining description

the question if descriptive expressions characterize a narrative as belonging to a genre or text type degree and extent of self-reflexivity with which a description is given descriptor’s assessment of his/her descriptive competence and self-confidence


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V. Reception-oriented and functionally determined types of description

The potential effect and function of descriptive utterances

17. transparent descriptions vs. opaque descriptions 18. descriptions compatible with the aesthetic illusion vs. (meta-)descriptions disturbing illusion 19. decorative/ornamental description vs. explanatory/functional description

degree of difficulty a description poses for the reader’s attempt to naturalize it the degree of compatibility with the aesthetic illusion or anti-illusionism of a descriptive utterance the degree of functionalization of a description

Figure 1: Types of Description

Despite its schematic and selective character, this overview may suffice to show that there are a great number of different forms of description which narrative theory has thus far failed to identify or differentiate.

4. On the historically variable functions of description in the English novel: a diachronic overview The typology and poetics of description proffered here also provide a number of precise reference points which can be employed to answer the question of which functions certain forms of description may fulfil. Since the phenomenon of description has thus far mainly been discussed from a synchronic and theoretical vantage point, the following section will give at least a very brief outline of the historic variability and polyfunctionality of descriptions. I should like to stress at the outset, however, that different forms of description can, in fact, fulfil a broad spectrum of functions17. It goes without saying that a comprehensive reconstruction of the diachronic changes in the forms and functions of description will have to remain a desideratum for a longer study, for which the following can only offer some elements. Apart from the widespread and misleading equation of description


Generally, one can assume that claims about the potential effects and functions of narrative strategies are only hypotheses projected by the reader; cf. the seminal contribution by Sommer (2000); on the functions of literature see also Gymnich/ Nünning, eds. (2005).

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with the enhancement of the aesthetic illusion, there have been hardly any studies concerning the functions of descriptions. Before the most important changes in the uses of description in the English novel are sketched from the vantage point of their historically variable functions18, let us briefly look at those functions that have been identified as being typical of descriptions. According to Wolf (see his contribution to this volume: 15), the descriptive serves three main functions in everyday discourse: first, it refers to a phenomenon, permitting its identification through the attribution of certain qualities; second, it provides a representation that permits others to imagine or re-experience this phenomenon; third, it serves to provide facts about this phenomenon rather than interpretations. Wolf also observes that while the first two functions, i. e. identification and representation, are as relevant to aesthetic descriptions in literature as to everyday communication, the question of whether descriptions in literature also provide more or less objective facts about the fictional world rather than interpretations thereof is a lot more intricate. Whereas the majority of theorists have either not been much concerned with this issue or argued that descriptions are mainly a means of providing information about the existents of the storyworld, implicitly conceptualizing description “as narrative’s neat meaning-less opposite” (Ronen 1997: 280), Michael Riffaterre (1981: 125) holds a much more radical position, arguing that the primary purpose of a description “is not to offer a representation, but to dictate an interpretation”. Rather than opting for one of these positions or coming up with another such generalizing observation, it might be more fruitful to explore the various functions that different kinds of description can fulfil. In addition to the basic functions discussed by Wolf, narrative theorists have also assigned several other functions to descriptions in literature. These include, for instance, “characterization, prediction […], delay, development of theme […], parody […] and even selfcontradiction” (Mosher 1991: 425). Description typically “situates characters and action in real surroundings […] and also creates an atmosphere” (ibid.: 427) that often prepares the reader for a key theme. In addition to providing background information and atmos18

It is obvious that the scope of possible functions is not limited to those mentioned here. For instance, descriptions can serve as a signal of narratorial unreliability (cf. A. Nünning et al. 1998), particularly in the case of undermining description (e. g. the example of McGrath’s The Grotesque referred to above).


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phere, descriptions can serve as a means of “characterization, delay for suspense, foreshadowing, and thematic information” (ibid.: 443). Though, there is widespread agreement that descriptions tend to fulfil several functions at once, one can assume that one of these function may be predominant in any given case. In Elizabethan prose and other precursors of the seventeenth-century novel, descriptions tend to be realistically motivated, of limited number, and relatively isolated. Mostly, they serve as a means of providing expository information and as authenticating strategies. In Renaissance prose – e. g. in Thomas Deloney’s short novels Jack of Newberie (1597) and Thomas of Reading (1600) or in Thomas Nashe’s picaresque novel The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jake Wilton (1594) – description can be found only rarely and in marginal positions without any descriptions that extend over long passages: “the picaresque novel tended to downplay extensive description, since its major concern lay in the plot-directed development of the action” (Fludernik 1996: 150). In most late seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century novels, a larger number of descriptions than in Renaissance prose occurs, but prior to Sterne these do not serve primarily as a means of destroying the aesthetic illusion, but have completely different functions. Independent of the question of whether it is a first-person or an authorial narrator who gives descriptions, the kind of descriptions that are typical of the novels of this period are usually conducive to the construction and maintenance of the aesthetic illusion, both as far as the characters and the places and objects are concerned. In novels written by, say, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, and Samuel Richardson, right through to Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, descriptions function as authenticating strategies, which are intended to underline the supposedly documentary character of the narrations, as any number of examples from novels of that period will illustrate. In addition, the narrator’s and characters’ descriptions are often aimed at having a moral or didactic effect. The quantitative and qualitative importance of description in the novels of Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, as well as in those of many of their immediate imitators, and the spectrum of functions the various kinds of descriptions fulfil is much greater than in any previous works in English narrative literature. As Anne Patricia Williams (1996) has shown, description and tableau play a particularly prominent role in the eighteenth-century British sentimental novel, which, in contrast to the picaresque novel and the

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adventure novel, downplays the plot-directed development of the action. Beginning with Laurence Sterne and then in Romantic narrative prose, a basic change took place concerning the importance and the functions of description, which, from the late eighteenth century onwards, began to play a more central role, developing in the direction of metafiction and self-reflexivity. In Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman the illusion of a personalized narrator or ‘teller’ is intensified by the clear temporal and local deictic situatedness of the act of narration and by the narrator’s repeated self-reflexive thematization of it. Moreover, in Sterne’s novel, there are several chapters which are primarily or even completely descriptive. Some chapters are even devoted to a description of the omnipresent digressions, which are so central that they become the subject of descriptive or metanarrative reflections. Although it is not the narrator but a fictive editor who is the subject of the extended descriptions in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-1834), there are similarities between Sterne’s and Carlyle’s novels from a functional point of view: in both cases, the descriptive segments not only promote ‘an extradiegetic secondary illusion of a close proximity of narrator/editor’ (cf. Wolf 1993: 570), they also fulfil similar parodistic and metafictional functions. In addition, they serve as a medium for poetological and aesthetic self-reflection, and they underline the literary staging of subjectivity in both works. In realistic nineteenth-century novels, descriptions fully come into their own, as it were, fulfilling again quite different functions: strengthening ‘the complicity of the persons of the outer communication level’ (cf. ibid.: 463), they primarily serve to create a trustinducing conversation between the explicit narrator and the narratee, establishing their agreement about basic norms and values. This function is especially apparent in George Eliot’s early novels Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) and Adam Bede (1859), in which both the authorial narrator and the narratee function as observers of the characters19. Eliot’s humanistic and aesthetic concern to endear simple, ordinary individuals to the reader and to ask the reader for his/her sympa19

Cf. Carlisle (1981: 181): “The narrator does not announce his understanding of a character; he introduces himself to the reader, creates a bond between himself and his listener, and only then rouses the reader to the activities that must issue in the discovery of the character’s appeal.”


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thy and understanding is repeatedly stressed by the detailed way in which the narrator describes the setting and the characters. The plethora of detailed descriptions, which is characteristic of Victorian novels and which derives from the attempt to provide a truthful picture of reality that is in accordance with the aesthetic norms, values and conventions of realism, mainly serves to enhance the graphic quality, visualization, and vividness of the characters and places. In addition, they often serve to create coherence and to fulfil mnemotechnic functions. The importance of these functions should not be underestimated in view of the size of the standard three-decker novels and the mode of serial publication. There are, for example, not only many intertextual cross-references between Trollope’s Barchester Towers (1857) and the later Barsetshire-novels but also a number of frame-based descriptions which refer to information already provided in the other works of the Barsetshire-cycle. Such intertextual descriptive references also show that the narrator presupposes the reader’s prior knowledge of earlier novels in the cycle: “It is hardly necessary that I should here give to the public any lengthened biography of Mr. Harding, up to the commencement of this tale.” (Trollope 1975: 12) It may be noted in passing that what is arguably almost as interesting as exploring the kinds and functions of descriptions in Victorian fiction is to ask which aspects of the characters’ lives authors and narrators typically refrain from describing. Metanarrative and metadescriptive comments in Victorian novels often serve the function of glossing over taboo areas or, conversely, of foregrounding the external and internal censorship inherent in the system of literature of the time, areas that are typically omitted from the range of descriptions. The following example from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair illustrates how references to omitted descriptions can have a satiric function by throwing a few critical asides at prevalent ideas of morality: We must pass over a part of Mrs Rebecca Crawley’s biography with that lightness and delicacy which the world demands – the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name. (Thackeray 1967: 676).

Furthermore, descriptions in many Victorian novels also contribute to poetological self-reflection. This poetological function is particularly apparent in the early and later novels by George Eliot20, chapter 17 in 20

For a more detailed discussion, cf. A. Nünning (1989: 147-175, 242-265).

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Adam Bede, tellingly entitled “In Which the Story Pauses a Little”, being probably one of the most noteworthy examples. The narrator’s reflections about “this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings” (Eliot 1980: 223) provide a lot of insight into the nature, quality and functions of the kind of description that one finds in Eliot’s novels as well as in the works of many other Victorian novelists (e. g. Dickens, Trollope and Hardy). The implied poetological purpose of detailed and extended descriptions becomes especially prominent in English novels influenced by the French school of naturalism, in which detailed descriptions of the characters’ living standards and social and cultural milieu serve as a means of explaining their dispositions and behaviours21. Both the realist and the naturalist novel were “committed in a new way to the representation of particulars, in character, scene, and environment” (Ronen 1997: 283), and to functionalizing such descriptions as a means of explaining the characters and their actions. The distinction between externally and internally focalized types of descriptions allows us to identify one of the most significant changes that occurred in respect of their forms and functions in the Victorian fin de siècle, though there are, of course, a number of important forerunners like Aphra Behn and Jane Austen22. In nineteenth-century realist novels most of the descriptions tend to be given by an overt narrator who provides reliable information about the properties of places, characters, and objects from an external, omniscient point of view. In modernist fiction, by contrast, internally focalized descriptions predominate (cf. Wolf in this volume: 29). One of the concomitant effects is that the degree of objectivity that we associate with externally focalized descriptions decreases. The following two examples from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in which the settings and atmospheres are described through the eyes of an observer sitting in a hansom and from the point of view of the female protagonist respectively, may serve to illustrate the subjective quality that distinguishes the effects and functions of internally focalized description from its externally focalized counterpart: 21 22

Cf. e. g. Wolf’s contribution to this volume: 60.

Cf. Fludernik (1996: 150), who observes that „Behn’s descriptions are frequently subjective rather than objective, rendering the characters’ mutual perception of one another’s qualities”.


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Lying back in the hansom, with his hat pulled over his forehead, Dorian Gray watched with listless eyes the sordid shame of the great city […] The moon hung low in the sky like a yellow skull. From time to time a huge misshapen cloud stretched a long arm across and hid it. The gas-lamps grew fewer, and the streets more narrow and gloomy. Once the man lost his way, and had to drive back half a mile. A steam rose from the horse as it splashed up the puddles. The side-windows of the hansom were clogged with a grey-flannel mist. (Wilde 1982: 184) And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling. (Woolf 1947: 5)

As these examples serve to underscore, the ubiquity of externally focalized descriptions since the beginnings of the novel (if not as far back as since the beginning of narration itself), which are one of the hallmarks of the realist novel, tends to decline in modernism. This is due to modernism’s ideal of narratorial objectivity and non-interference (as opposed to character-centred subjectivity) and the preference of a ‘dramatic’ or ‘scenic’ mode of narration, ideals that can be traced back to Friedrich Spielhagen’s, Henry James’s, and Percy Lubbock’s normative theories of the novel (cf. also Wolf 1993: 654). As a result, in the consciousness novel description starts “to turn subjective, rendering characters’ perceptions rather than mere quasi-objective background information” (Fludernik 1996: 151). Numerous English novels from the second half of the twentieth century demonstrate that descriptions can also fulfil metafictional functions and that they can serve as an instrument of destroying the diegetic illusion. One early but typical example is the game played by the authorial narrator with the fictitious (and real) addressee in B. S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. The following two metanarrative and metadescriptive narratorial asides show how closely description and metafiction are connected in this novel: For the following passage it seems to me necessary to attempt transcursion into Christie’s mind; an illusion of transcursion, that is, of course, since you know only too well in whose mind it all really takes place. (Johnson 1984: 23) An attempt should be made to characterise Christie’s appearance. I do so with diffidence, in the knowledge that such physical descriptions are rarely of value in a

Towards a Typology, Poetics and History of Description in Fiction


novel. It is one of the limitations; and there are so many others. Many readers, I should not be surprised to learn if appropriate evidence were capable of being researched, do not read such descriptions at all, but skip to the next dialogue or more readily assimilable section. Again, I have often read and heard said, many readers apparently prefer to imagine the characters for themselves. That is what draws them to the novel, that it stimulates their imagination! Imagining my characters, indeed! Investing them with characteristics quite unknown to me, or even at variance with such descriptions as I have given! (Ibid.: 51) Christie is therefore an average shape, height, weight, build, and colour. Make him what you will: probably in the image of yourself. (Ibid.: 51)

In many contemporary and postmodern novels – e. g. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) or J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello (2003) – descriptions and metadescriptions are also partially functionalized in such a metafictional way23. By foregrounding both the conventions inherent in realist modes of description and the reader’s share in the act of concretization, such metadescriptions not only lay bare the artificiality and contingency of each and every description, they also illuminate some of theoretical issues that the contributions to the present volume set out to explore. Despite the fragmentary character of this sketch of the various and historically changing functions descriptions might fulfil, it should have become clear that, depending on the kind of description we are dealing with, different functions are dominant in each individual case. As narrative language is polyfunctional, one can generally assume that there are variable dominance relations between the different functions and that they can overlap, intensify or relativize each other. This survey moreover highlights that not only the forms, but also, and especially, the functions of description are as much subject to historical variability as other narrative modes and strategies.

5. Conclusion and areas for further research When taking a retrospective look at the desiderata mentioned at the beginning of this paper, the following preliminary conclusion can be drawn. What I hope to have shown is that there are many different types of descriptions in novels which can be distinguished on the 23

Cf. Lopes (1995: ch. 6) for a pioneering analysis of the use of self-reflexive descriptions as “a metatextual/metadescriptive device pointing to its own limits and possibilities” (ibid.: 5).


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basis of various clearly definable criteria. The vast range of formal types of description corresponds to a similar multitude of functions that descriptive expressions can fulfil. Further work on the functional hypotheses outlined in section 4 could render them more precise, modify them or revise them. Considering the theoretical, definitional, typological, and functional differences discussed in this paper, it is self-evident that the broad field of description has not yet been treated in a comprehensive, much less an exhaustive way. The differentiated research of the forms, functions, and diachronic development of descriptive commentary is still among the desiderata of narratological research. The criteria proffered here not only allow for a detailed analysis of descriptive passages in a novel or a short story, but also lend themselves to a terminologically exact reconstruction of the development of the forms and functions of description over various periods of literary history, not only in narrative fiction but in other genres as well. The intriguing question of the use of different forms of description in poetry and drama, for instance, and the potential applicability and usefulness of the categories sketched out in this paper are complex issues which narratology has not even begun to gauge. Despite the productiveness of the critical industry, the questions raised in this volume are still a very fertile area of investigation. There are at least six important issues which have yet to be adequately explored. One of them is the development of an exhaustive and fullfledged theory of description24 fully integrating the insights recently provided by cognitive narratology, psychonarratology, and rhetorical narrative theorists as well as the refined conceptual frameworks and sophisticated models developed by possible-worlds theory. Second, what is needed is a more subtle and systematic account of the textual stimuli and contextual frames that are involved in the naturalization of descriptions, including more sophisticated analyses of the interplay between textual data and interpretive choices. Third, the different uses of description and, even more so, of metadescription in the works of both contemporary novelists and authors from earlier periods, and 24

Cf. Cobley’s (1986: 395) summary of the state of art, which arguably still holds true, the more so because none of the extant contributions to the theory of description has even attempted to integrate the insights provided by cognitive narratology, psychonarratology, and possible-worlds theory: “Discussions of description are still in a tentative phase, and no exhaustive or completely satisfactory theory has been advanced.”

Towards a Typology, Poetics and History of Description in Fiction


the ways in which they reflect or respond to changing aesthetic norms, literary conventions, and cultural discourses, are just waiting to be explored. Fourth, the history of the development of the narrative technique known as ‘description’ has yet to be written because (at least to my knowledge) no one has dared to provide an historical overview spanning the period from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. Fifth, since the generic scope of description has as yet neither been properly defined nor even gauged, its uses, forms, and functions across different genres, media, and disciplines provide a highly fertile area of research. The use of description in genres other than narrative fiction – for instance in dramatic genres, in poetry and in travelogues – as well as in other media and domains (including law and politics) deserves more attention than it has hitherto been given. Lastly, taking a new look at the development of both narrative techniques like description and the ways in which narratology has conceptualized them could be an important force in the current attempts to historicize narrative theory25.

References Primary sources Coetzee, J. M. (2003/2004). Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Eliot, George (1980 [1859]). Adam Bede. Stephen Gill, ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Johnson, Bryan Stanley (1984 [1973]). Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. Harmondsworth: Penguin. McGrath, Patrick (1990 [1989]). The Grotesque: A Novel. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Thackeray, William Makepeace (1967 [1847-1848]). Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero. London: Pan. Trollope, Anthony (1975 [1857]). Barchester Towers. London: Dent. Wilde, Oscar (1982 [1891]). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Isobel Murray, ed. Oxford: Oxford UP. Wodehouse, P. G. (1957/1952). Pigs Have Wings. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 25 For pioneering work in the field of a diachronic narratology, see Fludernik (1996) as well as Fludernik’s more recent articles.


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Woolf, Virginia (1947 [1925]). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press. Secondary sources Bal, Mieke (1981-1982). “On Meanings and Descriptions”. Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 6/1-2: 100-147. Barthes, Roland (1968). “L’effet de réel”. Communications 11: 84-89. — (1982). “The Reality Effect”. Tzvetan Todorov, ed. French Literary Theory Today. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 11-17. Bonheim, Helmut (1982). The Narrative Modes: Techniques of the Short Story. Cambridge: Brewer. — (1990). Literary Systematics. Cambridge: Brewer. Bortolussi, Marisa, Peter Dixon (2003). Psychonarratology: Foundations for the Empirical Study of Literary Response. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. Carlisle, Janice (1981). The Sense of an Audience: Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot at Mid-Century. Brighton: The Harvester Press. Chatman, Seymour (1990). Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP. Cobley, Evelyn (1986). “Description in Realist Discourse: The War Novel”. Style 20/3: 395-410. Emmott, Catherine (1997). Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Fludernik, Monika (1996). Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London/New York, NY: Routledge. Genette, Gérard (1966). “Frontières du récit”. Communications 8: 152-172. — (1969). Figures II. Essais. Paris: Seuils. Gymnich, Marion, Ansgar Nünning, eds. (2005). Funktionen von Literatur: Theoretische Grundlagen und Modellinterpretationen. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. Hamon, Philippe (1972). “Qu’est-ce qu’une description?”. Poétique 12: 465-485. — (1982). “What is a Description?” Tzvetan Todorov, ed. French Literary Theory Today. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 147-178. Herman, David (2002). Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln, NE/London: University of Nebraska Press. Ibsch, Elrud (1982). “Historical Changes of the Function of Spatial Description in Literary Texts”. Poetics Today 3-4: 97-113.

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Kittay, Jeffrey, ed. (1981). Yale French Studies 61 (Special issue: Towards a Theory of Description). Lanser, Susan Sniader (1981). The Narrative Act: Point of View in Prose Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. Lodge, David (1977). “Types of Description”. David Lodge. The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature. London: Edward Arnold. 93-103. Lopes, José Manuel (1995). Foregrounded Description in Prose Fiction: Five Cross-Literary Studies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Lüthi, Max (1984/1987). The Fairytale as Art Form and Portrait of Man, trans. Jon Erickson. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP. (Trans. of Das Volksmärchen als Dichtung: Ästhetik und Anthropologie. Düsseldorf/Cologne: Eugen Diederichs, 1975). Mosher, Harold F., Jr. (1991). “Towards a Poetics of ‘Descriptized’ Narration”. Poetics Today 12/3: 425-445. Nünning, Ansgar (1989). Grundzüge eines kommunikationstheoretischen Modells der erzählerischen Vermittlung: Die Funktionen der Erzählinstanz in den Romanen George Eliots. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. —, ed. (1998/2004). Metzler Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie: Ansätze – Personen – Grundbegriffe. Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler. —, Carola Surkamp, Bruno Zerweck, eds. (1998). Unreliable Narration: Studien zur Theorie und Praxis unglaubwürdigen Erzählens in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. Pflugmacher, Torsten (2005). “Description”. David Herman, Manfred Jahn, Marie-Laure Ryan, eds. Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London/New York, NY: Routledge. 101-102. Prince, Gerald (1987). A Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln, NE/ London: University of Nebraska Press. Riffaterre, Michael (1978). Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP. — (1981). “Descriptive Imagery”. Yale French Studies 61: 107-125. Ronen, Ruth (1997). “Description, Narrative, and Representation”. Narrative 5/3: 274-286. Sommer, Roy (2000). “Funktionsgeschichten: Überlegungen zur Verwendung des Funktionsbegriffs in der Literaturwissenschaft und Anregungen zu seiner terminologischen Differenzierung”. Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch 41: 319-341.


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Sternberg, Meir (1981). “Ordering the Unordered: Time, Space, and Descriptive Coherence”. Yale French Studies 61: 60-88. Watt, Ian (1957/1972). The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Williams, Anne Patricia (1996). “Description and Tableau in the Eighteenth-Century British Sentimental Novel”. Eighteenth-Century Fiction 8/4: 465-484. Wolf, Werner (1993). Ästhetische Illusion und Illusionsdurchbrechung in der Erzählkunst. Theorie und Geschichte mit Schwerpunkt auf englischem illusionsstörenden Erzählen: Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Functions of Description in Poetry Walter Bernhart As reflection on description in poetry has a long European tradition in the context of rhetoric, this essay starts out by discussing the main defining elements of description in this rhetorical tradition, in the wake of the Aristotelian concept of enargeia. It subsequently sketches the history of description in European poetry by referring to prominent poems from the body of English literature and identifying several functions which description was expected and seen to fulfil at various stages in the development of poetry (for example, rhetorical effectiveness of praise, ‘enargetic’ didacticism, triggering of emotional projections, grasping the Ding an sich). In conclusion, a reception-oriented general model of poetic description is outlined that defines poetic description as a process in which mimetic, imaginative, and emotive elements are fused.

In contrast to most of the other contributions to this volume, which tread on virtually unexplored ground by investigating descriptive processes in their respective media, this paper, dealing with description in poetry, has no need to start from scratch: poetry appears to be the only medium of communication which can look back on a venerable tradition of thoughts on the subject. In view of the fact that reflection on description in poetry goes back to antiquity and has never been lost sight of in the history of poetics, I will start out by summarizing briefly the traditional views of description in poetry, and then sketch, in rather bold strokes, the historical development of descriptive poetry in the European tradition. I will do so by looking at individual poems from English literature, all of them being ‘highlights’ of English poetry, which may serve as an indication that description forms an essential element in the tradition of poetry and is certainly no marginal phenomenon. As we go along, we will be able to identify a number of functions which description has been claimed to fulfil. I will round off my presentation by stating what I consider a main spring and purpose of descriptive practices in poetry and discuss my own modest model of descriptive activity in the arts. By intention, my methodological point of departure is not narratology – however valid and productive this perspective proves to be – but rhetoric.


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Interest in description is venerably old because “[u]ltimately, description should be considered as a strategy and an instancing of the doctrine of imitation” (Webb/Weller 1993: 283). Surely, imitation cannot blindly be seen as a naïve wish to reproduce reality in any quasi-objective way, yet the old Aristotelian idea of giving ‘imitative’ evidence of what we experience in the empirical world is a strong impulse which also forms the primary impulse for description. It is important to notice, however, that already at a very early stage of writing an awareness arose that description can be put to a variety of distinctive uses, depending on the pragmatic functions description is expected to perform in the communicative process. While “professional historiographers and forensic lawyer-orators” (i. e., people working in the official, public sphere) aim at “veracity”, in poetic use the aim of description is only “verisimilitude”, which implies that in the literary sphere – which is our present concern – the “immediacy of the effect of subjective representation is more important than the strict truth of its contents” (ibid.: 284). Such an effect-oriented ‘subjective’ element is injected into poetic description because “there is in fact always another governing intention (moralizing, didactic, persuasive, emotive) which is served, rather than conditioned, by the technique of description, which is rather to be considered as a rhetorical-poetic strategy to be applied in genres established on other grounds, as occasion demands” (ibid.: 288). Thus we can see that description takes on a different shape – i. e., different from ‘veracity’-oriented cases – when it appears in a ‘rhetorical-poetic’ role, depending on specific intentions motivating the descriptive representation. This rhetorical function of description arose very early in poetic history, although Ernst Robert Curtius – the great scholar who has made us keenly aware of the omnipresence of literary and rhetorical traditions – makes the following interesting point: ‘In Theocritus and Virgil, such descriptions (topothésia / topográphia) form only backdrops setting the scene for pastoral poetry. Yet they soon become independent and are made the subject of rhetoricising depictions.’1 This implies that before rhetorical uses of description came up, there were neutral practices of topographical rendering which were more or less unrelated to 1

This and all subsequent translations from German are my own. “Bei Theokrit und Virgil sind solche Schilderungen [topothésia / topográphia] nur inszenierende Staffage für pastorale Dichtung. Sie werden aber bald losgelöst und zum Gegenstand rhetorisierender Beschreibung gemacht.” (Curtius 1965: 202)

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the rest of the text and merely formed insignificant backgrounds2. (Yet, as we will see later, Curtius may have underestimated the function of topographia in Virgil’s Georgics.) It is Heinrich F. Plett, who in his seminal study Rhetorik der Affekte (1975) traces the afterlife of ancient rhetorical practices in Renaissance Europe and places description in a similar context as Curtius when he defines it as a ‘pathetic means of representation’ and a ‘part of the treatment of affects’3. The point Plett makes is that description is seen as part of a number of rhetorical devices which guarantee the effect of movere, of ‘moving the passions’, and thus go beyond the qualifications of the Horatian dyas of functions of art, i. e., delectare aut prodesse (‘teach and delight’). Description as a ‘moving’ element of hypotyposis is thus a means of ‘heightening the expressiveness’ and ‘perceptual presence’ of the representation (“Ausdruckssteigerung bzw. Vergegenwärtigung”; Plett 1975: 52), and the central quality which is identified as guaranteeing the ‘moving of the passions’ and to which description is able to contribute significantly is enargeia. This term refers to a quality that was first described by Aristotle and, as a rhetorical principle of effective presentation, is based on the exploitation of such epideictic (i. e., demonstrative and ornamental) devices as description, amplification or digression4. The importance of description for achieving enargeia is underlined by Plett’s observation about the necessary precondition of enargeia, namely, what he calls ‘the perceptual evidence (evidentia) of a description that is made palpable by concrete details (circumstantiae)’5. This qualification emphasises the sensual, visual side of descriptive effectiveness and at the same time highlights one further aspect which has traditionally been considered as an indispensable prerequisite of 2

A parallel can be drawn to early forms of landscape painting which, in contrast to later developments, do not yet enter into a vivid interaction with the main subject of the painting, as is demonstrated, for example, by Götz Pochat’s reflections on Giotto’s innovative “Flight into Egypt” (in this volume: 274f.).


“[...] pathetische[s] Darstellungsmittel”; “Teil der Affektbehandlung” (Plett 1975: 44).


“[Das] Prinzip der rhetorischen Enargeia [basiert auf der] Ausbeutung epideiktischer Redemittel (descriptio, amplificatio, digressio) ” (ibid.: 111).


“[...] die sinnliche evidentia einer durch konkrete Details (circumstantiae) anschaulich gestalteten Beschreibung” (ibid.: 135).


Walter Bernhart

description, namely a wealth of observed details. Plett gives an example taken from a poem by Gryphius, and it is indeed striking in its baroque richness of detail: Andreas Gryphius (1616 – 1664), “Die Hölle” Ach! und weh! Mord! Zetter! Jammer! Angst! Creutz! Marter! Würme! Plagen! Pech! Folter! Hencker! Flamm! Stanck! Geister! Kälte! Zagen! Ach vergeh! Tieff’ und Höh’! Meer! Hügel! Berge! Felß! wer kan die Pein ertragen? [...]6


Plett’s commentary on this poem is telling: what he identifies is ‘a vivid description (descriptio, ekphrasis) of a place of horror (locus terribilis) giving a wealth (copia) of topographical details’7. Thus, the aim of the description is again vividness (Anschaulichkeit), and in this case the place described, the locus terribilis, is the opposite of its far more popular counter-piece, the locus amoenus (‘pleasant place’). Again, there is a reference to the great amount of details that contribute to the effectiveness of the description, this time referred to as copia. We may observe that ancient rhetoric had a keen awareness of the essential elements involved in effective description, which is reflected in the variety of terminology that was available. It is a further interesting observation about ancient ideas of description that, in order to achieve the increased and heightened effect of movere, i. e., in order to achieve ekplexis (i. e., astonishment, amazement), “the depiction of fantastic, supernatural, and mythological creatures” was “permitted, even encouraged” (Webb/Weller 1993: 284). This implies that the idea of descriptive ‘verisimilitude’ – in contrast to ‘veracity’ –, as discussed before, was applied in a liberal 6


Qtd. Plett 2000: 209. English translation: ‘Alas! and woe! Murder! Clamour! Misery! Anxiety! Cross! Torment! Worms! Plagues! Pitch! Torture! Hangman! Flame! Stench! Ghosts! Chill! Quail! Alas decay! Depth and height! Sea! Hills! Mountains! Rock! Who can bear the pain? […]’

“[…] eine anschauliche Beschreibung (descriptio, ekphrasis) eines Schreckensortes (locus terribilis) in einer Fülle (copia) topographischer Details” (ibid.: 210).

Functions of Description in Poetry


sense and that the notion of circumstantiae or copia, i. e., of a great number of concrete details, was considered essential for description, but that the specific contents and the phenomenal origin of the details was considered of less importance as long as it triggered the desired effects (which, in fact, was even more likely to happen when nonrealistic items were involved). Another important observation in older descriptive theory concerns the degree of subjective and affective involvement that characterizes enargeia, and consequently descriptio, in contrast to other forms of representation. Plett quotes George Chapman, the great Elizabethan poet and translator of Homer (well-known by Keats’s famous poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”): “That, Enargeia, or cleerness of representation, requird in absolute Poems is not the perspicuous deliuery of a lowe inuention; but high, and harty inuention exprest in most significant, an vnaffected phrase” (Chapman 1941: 49, qtd. Plett 1975: 135). This statement by Chapman is not altogether unambiguous, for enargeia is here first paraphrased as “cleerness of representation” – which is unusual, as it was customary to stress the emotive and not the rational side of enargeia –, yet Chapman then states that enargeia is “not [!] the perspicuous deliuery”, where ‘perspicuousness’ necessarily implies ‘clarity’, ‘distinctness’, ‘intelligibility’. So it remains unclear whether clarity is a specification of enargeia or not. (It is equally unclear what Chapman has in mind when he talks about “absolute Poems”.) Plett’s commentary on this passage from Chapman deserves our attention. Enargeia, he says, ‘is not identical with unadorned perspicuitas […], which characterizes the representation of a low invention (inventio); but equally not so with artificial affectation (affectatio), to which many a high invention falls victim’; and referring to what Chapman further says in the source (cf. 49), Plett observes: ‘The >enargetic< description is comparable to a painting that shows >motion, spirit and life