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"Beim straucheln und beim sturzen und beim schreien": ekphrastic representation and identification in Gert Hofmann's Der Blindensturz.

In this analysis of Gert Hofmann's 1985 novel, Der Blindensturz, ekphrasis is reexamined as a postmodern literary device through which marginalized characters express their alterity. Here, the traditional ekphrastic focus on a work of plastic art within a text shifts instead to the literary subjects illuminated by an artwork. The relationship of the subjects (six blind beggars) to the painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder; and the way in which he represents them in the 1568 painting, Parable of the Blind, inspire questions of both ethics and aesthetics. Conventional theories of intersemiotic transposition underpin this investigation; however, it will be shown that both Hofmann and Bruegel simultaneously confirm and challenge tradition. I argue that while the painter's transformation of the marginalized characters into visual signs converts them into a form of representation legible to the public, the act of ekphrastic narration gives voice to this signification.


The desire to capture what one sees in the visual arts and transpose it into a literary text is certainly nothing new. (1) In fact, the practice of intersemiotic transposition known as ekphrasis (Greek--ek-phrassien/phrazein--to speak out) began as an introductory exercise for students of rhetoric, in which the technique of prosopopeia, the act of envoicing a silent art object, was practiced (Heffernan 6). The ultimate goal of this descriptive exercise was enargeia: the ability to call up an image in the mind's eye as vividly as it appeared before the viewer (Graf 143-55). While these early definitions may at first seem archaic, they undeniably inform the postmodern reading of ekphrasis presented here. The characters in Gert Hofmann's 1985 novel Der Blindensturz embody--as its very subjects--the substance of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1568 painting, Parable of the Blind. (2) In this uniquely ekphrastic novel, Hofmann "narrates" Bruegel's famous image depicting six blind beggars falling into a ditch. The narrators (in actuality a composite narrator comprised of the blind men) thus participate not only in the creation of a painting which will make their marginalized condition visibly legible, but more importantly, their verbal narrative gives their marginality a voice.

The complex matrix of representation and identification discussed here encompasses the role of an artist struggling with the loss of his own sight, the "spontaneous" choreography of a scream and fall meant to capture an aesthetic "truth," and the translation of alterity from social condition to image and text. While conventional theories of visual and verbal transposition (in particular, Lessing's Laokoon) underpin this analysis, it will be shown that both Hofmann and Bruegel simultaneously confirm and challenge tradition. The question of whether or not enargeia is achieved in the painting, especially with regard to the fall and the scream, is of upmost importance to the fictional Bruegel. At the same time, prosopopeia is extrapolated in this analysis from merely the voicing of a silent art object to the voicing of the silent subject (the blind protagonist-narrators). Here, postmodern ekphrasis is less about the artwork represented than about the literary subject illuminated by the artwork in the form of an original literary text. (3) More specifically, the transformation of the marginalized narrators into visual signs by the painter integrates them into a form of representation legible to the public, and the act of ekphrastic narration serves as the voice of this signification.

Hofmann is perhaps best known for his more than forty dramas and radio plays, the most famous of which are Der Burgermeister (1963), Der Sohn (1966), and Kundigungen (1969). While the author treated social and political themes in his dramatic works, the stories and novels he began to write in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought him popularity for their treatment of mentally and physically disadvantaged protagonists finding their way in a less than accepting world. In addition to Der Blindensturz, his critically acclaimed prose works include Auf dem Turm (1982), Veilchenfeld (1986), Unsere Vergesslichkeit (1987), DerKinoerzahler (1990), and Tolstois Kopf (1991). While Hofmann's prose is often considered dark in its obsession with the topics of cruelty and inhumanity, the darkness is tempered with unexpected humor and a concise writing style that makes the works eminently readable. According to the author's son, Michael Hofmann (who has translated several of these pieces into English), his father preferred stories about childhood and works of art, themes that were of personal interest to him. Der Blindensturz, written ten years before the author's death, stands as an example of quintessential Hofmann, addressing thought-provoking questions of representation in art and literature yet presented in combination with his trademark accessible language and wry humor.

Critical analyses of Der Blindensturz have concentrated on narrative theory, aesthetics, and social critique. Hans-Georg Schede's detailed reading of the novel marks a clear distinction between voice and perception (Stimme und Wahrnehmung) in the text, providing a better understanding of the composite narrator. In Gert Hofmann: Auskunft fur Leser (1989), Elsbeth Pulver, Heinz Schafroth, and Peter Urban-Halle each approach the novel from different perspectives, but all ultimately concur that the story is one of a victim/oppressor dichotomy: the artist dehumanizes and objectifies the blind beggars all in the name of art. While I agree with these readings and address the topic later in this paper, I hesitate to collapse Hofmann's narrative into a simple binary of victim and oppressor. It is true that the artist uses these marginalized men to his own benefit--in hope of capturing the elusive "silent scream"--but the beggars are no mere victims. The men become agents of change by giving their journey a narrative voice; through the double-identification of visual and verbal representation, they are no longer silenced.

The analyses of Kamilla Najdek, Anne-Kathrin Reulecke, and Sabine Gross support various elements of the hypothesis argued here. Najdek analyzes Hofmann's unique ability to "quote" Bruegel's famous painting in literary form by recalling some of the fundamental definitions of ekphrasis. Exploring the representation of violence and the violence of representation, Reulecke focuses on the reciprocal relationship between artist and model, paying particular attention to the principles of mimesis: "Der Dialektik zwischen den inneren Vorstellungsbildern und den dem Ausseren verpflichteten Wahrnehmungsbildern korrespondiert im Text eine Dialektik von Nahe und Ferne" (214). Gross situates Hofmann's novel within the theoretical tradition of ekphrasis and explains the ways in which this text differs from conventional ekphrases, particularly how Hofmann's narrative gives Bruegel's painting--and thereby the victims of violence--a voice:
   Hofmanns Text verleiht denn auch nicht, wie es Hagstrum fordert,
   dem Bild eine Stimme--stattdessen kommen in ihm die Bildsubjekte zu
   Wort, die somit genau das tun, was das Bild unmoglich macht. Der
   ekphrastische Text ist nicht gehorsamer Diener des Bildes, sondern
   wird zu einem Anklager, indem er sich der Stimme der Opfer bedient.
   Indem er sie zu Erzahlern macht, verleiht Hofmann vom ersten Satz
   an den rechtlosen Blinden, die sonst gleich doppelt, sozial als
   Ausgestossene wie auch medial durch die Verwandlung ins Bild, zum
   Verstummen gebracht werden, das Recht zur Rede. (125)

Gross's interpretation thus inspires this analysis, one which continues the examination of representation and identification of alterity in this contemporary ekphrastic text.

Bruegel's Parable of the Blind is just one in a long tradition of artistic representations of blindness. According to Heike Sudhoff, these representations can traditionally be divided into two categories: those depicting a fall (Blindensturz) and those depicting a cure (Blindenheilung). (4) Images representing the fall are typically laced with a moral or ethical message that can be supported by a formal analysis of Bruegel's painting itself. For example, this horizontally situated canvas features the six blind men in the foreground, physically connected to one another by outstretched arms and walking sticks, their bodies forming the arc of their fall from left to right. In the background, and situated on the same sightline as the heads of the last three men, lies a small church. If one were to draw a vertical line from the church steeple down, one would find a division between the two men who have already fallen (or begun their fall) and the four men who still remain upright. One decidedly Christian interpretation of this constellation is that with the intervention of the church, sinners have the opportunity to be saved.

Bruegel's painting, housed today in the Galleria Nazionale in Naples, is comprised of muted grays, browns, and blacks. It shows a bleak Flemish landscape in which the abrasive texture of the men's garments, the thatched roofs, and the leaves on the trees appear detailed enough to touch. Adding to the realism, Bruegel differentiates--with medical accuracy--the cause of each man's blindness. According to Mary Lou Panter, "[t]his painting is remarkable in its accurate clinical depictions. The victims suffer from five different eye diseases, from the patient with the white film over his eyes, known as leucoma, to one with atrophy of the eyebal1 from permanently neglected glaucoma" (172). The artist's attention to detail and the manner in which he captures the pregnant moment of the fall (a point discussed at the end of this essay) has made Parable of the Blind an extremely popular painting, and particularly fruitful in terms of inspiring literary interpretations and recreations. (5)

From the very first pages of the novel, the reader is told that the artist (who remains nameless throughout the work, emphasizing his importance in the community where he is simply referred to as "der Maler") is an extremely influential man in Flanders. As the story opens, the blind men are happy to remain sleeping in a barn, languishing in a world of "Vergessensein." However, when they are awakened by the Klopfer and reminded that they are to be painted on that day, even these uneducated men excitedly dress themselves and prepare to meet "der Maler." When they finally reach his home and are about to encounter him for the first time, there is a definite air of expectation, heightened by the actions of the artist's maid:
   Ach, sagt sie, da kommt ihr gar nicht aus dem Armenhaus? Das
   Armenhaus, sagen wir, kam dann auch, aber erst viel spater. Vorher
   haben wir mit Schafen und Honig gehandelt und sind.... Still, sagt
   sie, da ist er. Benedictus, rufen wir, die Arme in der Luft, und
   horen, wie ein Fenster aufgeht, aber wo? Und schauen in irgendeine
   Richtung, doch wahrscheinlich zu hoch nach oben. He du, rufen wir,
   beschreib ihn uns. Lachelt er, oder ist er ernst? Schaut er zu uns
   heruber? Hat er sich uns so vorgestellt, oder sind wir eine
   Enttauschung? Und da einer von uns verlorenging: Ist er mit sechsen
   auch zufrieden? (91)

The maid interrupts their barrage of questions the moment she sees that the artist has arrived and the men are immediately overcome with emotion, arms thrown into the air, "looking" in what they hope is his direction. Their physical reactions to the arrival of the painter, coupled with their cry of "Benedictus," signal that the artist is practically revered as a god. To these hapless men, he is a clear authority figure; his disappointment is their greatest fear, his implicit endorsement (by means of their representation in his painting) their chance at fulfillment.

Maintaining the expected distance required of a deity, the men are disappointed to learn that they will not come any closer to the painter than the ditch into which they must repeatedly fall. Avoiding his own personal discomfort altogether, the artist creates and maintains a physical and emotional remoteness from the men. The ironic mediation Hofmann employs to keep the painter detached from his subjects is described by Reulecke:
   Einerseits benotigt der Maler die korperliche Prasenz der Blinden,
   gleichzeitig aber ist es ihm unmoglich, direkt und unmittelbar in
   Kontakt zu ihnen zu treten. Eine Kette von Zuarbeitern--der
   Klopfer, die Magd und der Gartner--hat den Auftrag des Malers
   weitergegeben und die Blinden fur den Moment des Modellstehens
   "prapariert." Als sie vor seinem Fenster stehen, kann der Maler sie
   nicht ansehen und lasst sich uber seinen Freund berichten, ob sie
   sich bewegen "wie Blinde." (214-15)

Perhaps to avoid a possible disappointment in their appearance, the artist does not even deign to look upon the beggars until his friend has convinced him that the men act in conformity with the norms of blindness, reinforcing the notion that aesthetic authenticity is paramount for the painter.

In a compelling reversal of the conventionally accepted artist/subject relationship associated with Breugel, Schede postulates that in the novel, the painter concerns himself with the authenticity of blindness for his own selfish needs: "Weil sie [die Blinden] selbst die Welt nicht mehr sehen, bilden sie als gleichsam unbeschriebene Blatter, als eine neutrale Leinwand eine ideale Projektionsflache fur die Sicht der Welt des Malers" (353). Schede further posits that the painter's desire to project his own world view onto his subjects, and ultimately the artworks themselves, is a function of his narcissism: "Kunstlich muss er eine Distanz herstellen, die ihm normalerweise fehlt. Diese fehlende Distanz beruht gerade nicht auf einer gesteigerten Aufmerksamkeit und Hingabe gegenuber seiner Umwelt. Vielmehr grundet sie in seinem Narzissmus, der letztlich kein Aussen kennt" (354). While the painter's poor treatment of the beggars could be read as his own self-absorption, Peter Urban-Halle contends that the artist "braucht die Distanz, um seine Idee ungestort formen und den von ihm veranstalteten Schrecken selber aushalten zu konnen. Was sich lange anbahnt und nun vollstreckt wird, ist ein Menschenexperiment" (93). To remain emotionally unattached is for the painter to achieve an unfeeling distance in which it is possible to represent "truth"--the truth of his own advancing blindness. (6)

As the blind men astutely note: "Doch obwohl er dann so tief in uns eindringt, fuhlt er sich uns nicht nahe, so dass seine Begegnung mit uns, dieses Aufeinanderstossen, fur ihn zu ertragen sei. Denn in dem Zustand, in dem er sei, konne er sich, das sei leider wahr, ausserhalb seiner Kunst keine Art von Nahe, von Erregung leisten" (95). The choice of the word "Aufeinanderstossen" here is interesting: be it interpreted as either a chance meeting or as a type of collision, neither definition imparts the sense of a positive experience. The fact that the painter summoned the men to him in order to use them as subjects would seem to negate a chance meeting and rather confirm the definition of collision. Further, Pulver notes that to avoid his own discomfort, the artist ironically creates an inhumane distance from those he seeks to represent humanely: "Die Distanz, die Hofmann zwischen den Maler und seine Figuren legt, mutet zunachst fast unmenschlich an" (160). While this statement is true, it must be considered in the broader context of the novel. In the double identification occurring in the narrative (the artist finds his reflection in the beggars, who find their reflection in the resultant artwork), I contend that it is psychologically necessary for the painter to keep the blind men at a physical and emotional distance in order to consummate the artistic appropriation of his subject.

These blind beggars are characterized as outsiders because their physical disabilities define their role in society; the limitations on their contributions to the community segregate them from the general public. (7) Without sight, these men are judged on all fronts: moral, monetary, and social. In the sixteenth century, blindness was considered punishment for a moral infraction, the penalty for which was the inability to perform respectable physical labor. Without other recourse, the blind were forced to beg for food and shelter, resulting in a way of life further considered unacceptable. This downward spiral of societal rejection is illustrated by the fact that the men define themselves by their relationships to one another within their own group, rather than within the confines of the greater social structure:

Sie weisen, gefragt, wer sie seien, nicht auf ihren Platz in der Welt, sondern auf ihren Platz in der Marschordnung ihrer Gruppe. Dabei zeigt sich, wie begrenzt ihre Welt ist, wie hoch die Identifikation mit ihrer Gruppe, wie nahe der Punkt, an dem sich die eigene Personlichkeit verliert, die unwillkurlich primar als Teil der Gruppe empfunden wird. (Schede 221)

Each man's place in the group, from who is dressed first to who leads them on their journey through the countryside, is clearly determined. Based on necessity but reinforced by the need for the same sort of internal structure and routine enjoyed by organized societies, the beggars control the only aspects of their daily lives over which they have power.

From the beginning, it is evident that the men consider themselves to be outside the community by their constant differentiation between "us" and "them": "An dem Tag, andem wir gemalt werden sollen--dass schon wieder ein neuer Tag ist!--holt uns ein Klopfen ans Scheunentor aus unserem Schlaf hervor. Nein, nicht in uns wird geklopft, sondern draussen, bei den anderen" (5). Here it can be argued, as Paul Michael Lutzeler does, that the beggars stand so far outside society that they must literally be awakened to that world: "Hofmanns Blinde--auch verstossene Sohne--haben kaum noch Teil an der menschlichen Gemeinschaft, mussen zum Leben erst erweckt werden, irren und torkeln sinn- und orientierungslos, drehen sich im Kreis oder treten auf der Stelle, ohne es zu merken" (55). Although the men are disoriented in the landscape in terms of their geographical location they are well aware of their position in the community. For example, after the child refuses to lead the men to the pond where the artist lives, they are humiliated by rejection and know they must retreat: "Mach's nichts, wir finden den Teich auch ohne dich, sagen wir und treten ein paar Schritte zuruck, denn es ist unsere Pflicht zuruck-zutreten, damit wir aus dem Weg sind" (26-27). The beggars are cast aside, reminded of the delineation between their existence and that of everyone else: as outsiders, it is their duty to stick to the margins and "get out of the way" of society.

When analyzing the status of the narrators as blind beggars, one must take into account that "die konkrete physische Blindheit in philosophischen, as thetischen und religiosen Diskursen des Abendlandes untrennbar verbunden ist mit ihrer weiteren, symbolischen oder allegorischen Bedeutung" (Reulecke 219). Blind characters must be considered not only in terms of their physical malady but also as symbol or allegory; most often in our culture blindness is taken for ignorance or indifference. This long tradition in the west is due in great part to the value attributed to vision and the way in which human beings are thought to learn and perceive. Reulecke reminds us that "[d]as Sehen galt in der Antike als diejenige Sinneswahrnehmung, die in besonderem Masse der Vermehrung von Wissen und Erkenntnis dient. So ist denn auch in der griechischen Sprache die Wurzel des Wortes 'Sehen' identisch mit der Wurzel des Wortes 'Theorie' (theorein=Sehen, Schauen)" (219-20). To see something is to to know or understand it, therefore the absence of sight is ignorance.

Although the act of ekphrastic narration marks the journey of these insignificant men from obscurity to notoriety, their appearance in the painting is most important to the characters themselves. Because the transformation from unseen figures in an apathetic society to the central characters in a widely-known painting represents such a dramatic shift, this delineation is paramount. Reulecke argues that the painting functions as both "stage" and "threshold of memory":
   Der Ubergang von einem uneinsehbaren Ort--vielleicht einer Scheune
   im Hintergrund des Bildes--zur "Buhne" des Gemaldes verbildlicht
   zugleich das Ubertreten einer Gedachtnisschwelie. Der Vorgang des
   Gemaltwerdens wird somit parallelisiert mit dem Ubergang vom
   Vergessensein zum Erinnertwerden. Die Blinden, derer sich niemand
   erinnern wurde und die ins Unsichtbare ubergingen, treten uber den
   Prozess der Abbildung in den Bestand des kulturellen Gedachtnisses
   ein. Sie hinterlassen im Bild eine Spur ihrer Existenz. Ein
   Zeichen. (205)

I agree with Reulecke's assertion that the act of being painted transforms the men from the realm of the forgotten to that of the remembered, and I further suggest that the transformation which occurs via ekphrasis extends to the consciousness of the blind men as well. The beggars make the difficult journey to the artist's home and repeatedly fall into a ditch because they know that the result will be visibility and immortality; as subjects of a painting, they are made to be seen and remembered by the society. By being transformed, as Reulecke argues, into a sign (Zeichen) on the canvas, the men leave their mark within the margins. Although they are being represented as outsiders in the painting, their elevation into subjects of a painting brings with it the certainty of being remembered, of having existed.

The promise of "fixing" time on canvas--moving from forgotten ephemera to timeless permanence--is only one aspect of the relationship between spatiality and temporality explored here. The actual progressive composition of the figures on the canvas (a constellation reiterated by Hofmann in the novel) is perhaps Bruegel's most striking contribution to the potential for movement, and thereby time, in this painting. Perhaps more than anything else, the progressive arc of the fall represented in this work exemplifies the artist's ability to capture a moment suspended in time. The close physical proximity of the men to one another and their physical connection, either by means of hands or walking sticks, is highly conducive to the perception of movement. As Gotthard Jedlicka states, "[e]s ist als ob man in dem Kunstwerk sogar den Ablauf der Zeit optisch zu erfassen vermochte [...]. Es ist unheimlich, wie die Bewegung in den einzelnen Figuren so auseinandergelegt ist, dass sich darin die Unaufhaltsamkeit des Schicksals ausdruckt" (qtd. in Sudhoff 130). Like a row of dominoes, the men are inextricably linked to one another in their fall; the laws of gravity have taken hold and their fate is unavoidable.

According to Pulver, Bruegel "halt in seinem Bild einen Augenblick, einen bestimmten, einmaligen Augenblick, fest--und lasst darin, unmerklich, auch Zeit sichtbar werden" (160). Pulver explains the trajectory of the fall and the way the artist simultaneously captures one moment in time while suggesting its progression: "Doch was das Ende einer Bewegung zu sein scheint, ist zugleich der Anfang; schon ist sichtbar, wie der Sturz sich durch die Gruppe schleicht, sich fortsetzt" (160). The representation of simultaneity in art and literature cannot be broached without referring to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's groundbreaking treatise on the subject, Laokoon oder Uber die Grenzen der Mahlerey und Poesie (1766). Harkening back to Horace, Lessing's argument is grounded in a basic unifying element among the arts: their effect on the recipient. (8) From this vantage point, Lessing revisits and confirms the division of media prevalent during antiquity by demarcating specific and appropriate realms for each mode of representation. Taking the statue of the Trojan priest, Laokoon--depicted battling sea serpents that threaten the lives of his sons--as his case in point, Lessing argues that the appropriateness of subject matter should determine whether a subject is better represented in visual or verbal form. The appropriateness of expression is clearly defined in terms of how each medium functions. Lessing asserts that due to the static nature of pictorial representation, it is limited in its depiction of actions in time. That is to say, a painting or sculpture can only capture one moment in time; therefore, visual arts are to do what they do best--depict an object in space in a single moment in time. This "snapshot" nature of the visual arts makes the choice of which moment is chosen for representation crucial. For this reason, Lessing identifies the "pregnant moment" as the singular point in time that allows the viewer to discern what might have transpired in the previous moment as well as what may take place in the next.

Conversely, Lessing states that while visual art best remains in the realm of physical representation in space, literature functions most fruitfully in the representation of actions in time: "Es bleibt dabei: die Zeitfolge ist das Gebiete des Dichters, so wie der Raum das Gebiete des Malers" (196). Hence, sequential narration finds its fullest expression in the medium of verbal representation. It then follows that if physical descriptions are to be represented in the written word, Lessing suggests that they be rendered in the form of an action. As his primary example, Lessing lauds Homer in the Iliad for depicting the actions of the craftsmen as they create Achilles's shield. Rather than merely listing a litany of highly descriptive details, Homer narrates the shield both in its physical production and in the actions represented on its surface. In this way, the verbal representation functions at its highest capacity--relating actions in time. I conclude from this that Lessing regards energeia, or action, as the key to achieving the elusive enargeia (Anschaulichkeit). In the case of Der Blindensturz, both energeia and enargeia are achieved through the painter's desire for authenticity.

The authenticity of the fall comes at the expense of the subjects who repeatedly perform it. Certainly the distance of Hofmann's painter from his subjects allows for their objectification, giving the artist implicit permission to abuse them. In order for Bruegel to show the plight of the blind beggars and make them more "human" by representing them, he must ironically first transform them into objects and subsequently torture them: dehumanization is endorsed in the name of humanization. As Reulecke points out:
   Um also "das Entsetzen," "die armen Menschen" und "den Menschen"
   darzustellen, werden die Blinden einer regelrechten Tortur
   unterzogen. Sie werden aufgefordert, mit Absicht und
   wiederholtermassen zu fallen. Sie werden nass, verletzen sich und
   schreien in Todesangst. Der Text markiert diesen Augenblick, der
   auch auf Bruegels Bild zu sehen ist, als den Moment, der dem Maler
   Anregung/ Inspiration/Ideen gibt. Es wird damit eine
   widerspruchliche Struktur des kunstlerischen Prozesses dargestellt,
   in welchem die Modelle, nicht mehr "wie Menschen" behandelt werden
   und damit den Status von Objekten erhalten, wahrend sie dem Maler
   zum Stoff werden fur die Darstellung von "der Verfassung der Welt
   und der Menschen." (219)

Along these same lines, Urban-Halle notes that the relationship between artist and subject is particularly contentious in Hofmann's representation: "Der Maler entpuppt sich als teils kalte, teils besessene Seele, er ist insofern Kunstler, als er der Inszenator eines Opferganges ist, den er, um ihn schmackhaft zu machen, asthetisieren will" (93). As artist and abuser, the painter must make the unattractive truth of marginality palatable to the viewer so that s/he can respond to it. In this, the artist must be mindful of the aestheticism of static representation. At what point does the gaping mouth of the scream become too hideous to portray? (9)

Concerning the verisimilitude of realistic art, the characters in Hofmann's novel seem to have varied ideas as to which elements of artistic reproduction should be considered "authentic." The uneducated subjects of Bruegel's painting realize that some aspects of their appearance (attire, grooming) will be improved for the purpose of artistic representation, or they have learned that this is the case while at the home of the painter:
   Dann werden wir aus den Baumen wieder abgeholt und fur das Bild
   zurechtgemacht. Dafur mussen wir uns nebeneinanderstellen, sie
   gehen an uns entlang. An jedem gibt es etwas auszusetzen, keinen
   mogen sie, wie er ist. Keiner ist, so wie er ist, furs Malen gut
   genug. Dem rucken sie die Kappe gerade, dem ziehen sie am Kittel
   herum, von dem zupfen sie, was vom Schlafen her noch an ihm hangt,
   weil es nicht aufs Bild gehort. (89)

The men observe that no one in his natural state is suitable to be represented in art and everyone is in need of modifications. Most importantly, some things (es) simply do not belong in a painting; however these men are being painted, a statement implicitly endorsing their own worthiness of appearance on canvas.

While it is required that the men be modified from their "natural" state for the painting, there is one authentic characteristic that the artist insists upon: their blindness. When discussing the blind beggars with his friend, the artist attempts to varify their authenticity:

Ich weiss, es ist ein schrecklicher Gedanke, sagt er dann, aber Hauptsache ist, sie sind wirklich blind. Vollkommen, sagt der gute Freund. Kannst du mir das versprechen? Ja, sie sind genauso, wie du gewollt hast. Hast du sie dir angeschaut? Ich habe sie vor dem Haus eben auf und ab fuhren lassen. Sie sind wirklich blind. Also bewegen sie sich auch wie Blinde, fragt der Maler, das ist namlich wichtig. Jawohl. (94, emphasis added)

How will the artist transfer this ultimate authenticity (through movement) onto the canvas when his medium, by its very definition, cannot realistically reproduce movement? The painter seems to believe that by portraying the beggars at the proper angles with the appropriate expressions, he will come close to capturing the elusive pregnant moment.

Sitting in his atelier, observing the beggars outside his window, the artist explains that subjects are only worth painting if they are represented at the very limits of life: "Die Bilder dieser Raume, nun ohne Himmel, also mit hohem Horizont, seien bis an die Rahmen hin, Gold, mein guter Freund, mit Darstellungen von Menschen und Dingen angefullt, die alle am Sterben, im Untergehen oder bereits tot sind. Alle in extremis, sagt er. Wie diese hier" (92). By representing dying or already dead subjects, the painter hopes to evoke dramatic reactions, whatever the cost. For the beggars who injure themselves repeatedly as they do his bidding, the cost is mental and physical abuse; however, pain and injury to his human subjects are of no consequence to the artist. Reulecke notes the irony of the painter's creation of a violent act in order to represent the horror of a violent act in art: his behavior "reflektiert damit eine dialektische Struktur innerhalb der Kunstproduktion, in welcher die Darstellung von Gewalt und des Schrecklichen in ihren Ver fahrensweisen gewalttatige Strukturen reproduziert" (202). The violent structures created in this dialectic are to the benefit and detriment of artist and subject alike.

By using subject s who are truly blind in order to capture their extreme condition and emotions "accurately," the artist intentionally chooses marginalized characters who are of no consequence to him or anyone in the community. These outsiders are not seen as equals, but rather as objects to be used and discarded at will. Because of their inferior position in society, the artist is free to relentlessly put them through their paces:

Rucksichtslos lasst er die Blinden und ihr Elend, ihren Schrei, ihr Straucheln und Sturzen immer wieder in Szene setzen, beutet sie bis zur Gewalttatigkeit mit dem Ziele dieser Verwandlung aus, entzieht sich dadurch aber ihrer Wirklichkeit und hebt sie (im doppelten Sinn des Wortes) auf fur den asthetischen Genuss. (Schafroth 157)

The violence which the men inflict on themselves as they keep enacting the fall elevates the reality of their everyday suffering to a level of visual symbolism suitable for general public consumption.

In the tradition of ekphrasis, the "silent scream," first problematized by Lessing and taken up repeatedly by scholars during the last two hundred and fifty years, remains one of the most extreme expressions in the plastic arts. It is precisely this controversial instance that inspires the ekphrastic narrative here: "Ohne expliziten Bezug auf Lessings Laokoon nimmt Hofmanns Text doch genau dessen zentrale Frage auf: den 'fruchtbaren Moment' den Lessing am Beispiel des Schreis behandelt. Denn eben den Schrei, den nach Lessing die bildende Kunst nicht zeigen darf, versucht Hofmanns Maler festzuhalten" (Gross 125). The painter's own paradoxical notion of authenticity is stretched to its limit in his attempt to strike the precarious balance between truth in representation (pain) and a fitting expression of that truth (mouth not too agape). As judiciously expressed by Gross, the problem of representation arises because "der Schrei ist die Grenze der Signifikation, er ist reiner Ausdruck, nicht Bezeichnung" (123). Poised at the very limits of representation, the scream poses the ultimate challenge for artists working in a visual medium.

For this reason, it is no surprise that painters and sculptors for centuries have longed to meet this challenge, Bruegei being no exception. From the beginning of the novel, it is evident that the subjects have been told to scream; that the scream is one of the key elements in the composition: "Da werden wir also im Gehen gemalt? Beim Straucheln und beim Sturzen und beim Schreien" (6). The desire to capture the scream has been with this particular artist for as long as he can remember, precisely because of it s elusive nature:
   [Er] erklart seinem guten Freund hinter dem Fenster, dass er schon
   seit seiner Kindheit gehofft hat, eines Tages eine uberzeugende
   Darstellung des menschlichen Schreis zu geben, um mit so einem Bild
   alle Bilder, die er schon gemalt hat, vergessen zu lassen,
   auszuloschen. (Aber auch alle, die andere gemalt haben.) In dieses
   abschliessende und endgultige Bild mochte er alles, was er uber die
   Weit zu sagen hat, hineinlegen, doch sei ihm so ein Bild noch nicht
   gelungen. Vielleicht konne es ihm auch nicht gelingen, vielleicht
   ist so ein Bild gar nicht moglich. (98)

This passage, which follows on the heels of the discussion between the painter and his friend in which the artist's failing health and eyesight are addressed, suggests that the painter is well aware of his own mortality and longs to create a work which will immortalize him. I suggest it is not only the representational challenge presented by the scream that makes this painting the artist's "abschliessende und endgultige" work, but also the very subject itself: blind men falling and screaming--a scream that resonates in the mind of the painter who is himself losing his sight. (10)

Just as the perfect depiction of the scream is thought to have the ability to make the painter immortal, the subjects of the painting also hope to gain recognition through its power. Although the scream is only represented as oil on canvas, it carries with it the authority to make these oft overlooked characters seen by the society. The blind men are not sure why the painter longs to capture their stumbling, falling, screaming images, but they already seem to know that it will affect them. As they overhear him speaking to his friend, they immediately recognize that they are the ones who will benefit from the successful representation of the silent scream:
   Warum er es festhalten muss, konne er nicht sagen, auch warum der
   Schrei dargestellt werden muss nicht. Jedenfalls wird er, falls es
   uberhaupt zum Malen kommt, die armen Menschen (uns!) schreiend
   zeigen, damit man sie (uns!), besser sieht. Damit man sie (uns),
   uber die man immer wieder hinwegsieht, endlich uberhaupt einmal
   sieht und weiss, was der Mensch ist. (99)

Hofmann relates the scream as a souce of empowerment for both artist and subject. In the above passage, exclamation marks reiterate the importance of what the scream signifies. As the artist speaks to his friend in terms of "arme Menschen" and "sie" ("uber die man immer wieder hinwegsieht"), the beggars are empowered by the realization that they are going to be transformed by their visual representation.

Even more salient than the artist's representation of the scream is that of the fall. It is this single action that precipitates the scream and focuses the composition. Because the act depicted in Bruegel's painting can be described in German as eithersturzen orfallen, Hofmann's choice of sturzen is significant. As Najdek writes, "Sturzen hat, anders als das Fallen, immer etwas Gewaltsames an sich: Beim Sturzen kommt es meistens zu einer Verletzung" (281). The brutality implicit in this word is certainly reflected in the violent actions described in the text, particularly in the arc of the fall itself. Sudhoff explains that there are intricacies in the representation of the fall--inherent in the con- stellation of the men--that far exceed what the casual observer might glean from a cursory viewing of Bruegel's painting:
   Die Idee der "Kette" der sturzenden Blinden wird von Bruegel ausser
   in den zuvor erwahnten Gestaltungsprinzipien auch in einem vollig
   anderen Sinn fur die Vermittlung des Bildgehalts wirksam gemacht.
   Innerhalb der Kette nimmt Bruegel Abstufungen und Differenzierungen
   vor, die mit dem formalen Verweis auf den Sturz parallel gehen. Es
   wurde bereits gesagt, dass die Kopfe der sechs Blinden sehr
   auffallend in einer Parabelkurve angeordnet sind. Diese Kurve ist
   in der Mathematik die Veranschaulichung der zunehmenden
   Beschleunigung eines fallenden Korpers. Eine Akzeleration des
   Sturzes druckt sich aber nicht nur in der Anordnung der Kopfe
   sondern auch in deren Erscheinungsbild und Physiognomie aus. (139)

The geometric pattern supporting the arc of the fall subconsciously contributes to the perceptual impact of the scene. The recognition of the danger to come in the fall registers with each of the men as alarm, increasing from the last man to the first. As Sudhoff points out, their expressions create a corresponding arc, "der eine Skala von Differenzwerten zwischen Ruhe und Entsetzen umfasst" (140). Each of these detailed observations supports the claim that Bruegel attempted to capture the elusive representation of time--argued by Lessing and others to be the sole domain of the written word.

Hofmann explores a variety of representational quandaries by generating one original artwork from another, giving the reader a possible scenario for the origins of the painting, as well as the opportunity to reinterpret an already- familiar image. Additionally, the reader is newly affected by the subjects of the painting while they reconceive Bruegel's subjects in this textual manifestation; it is the reception of works of visual art or literature that determines the success of an interart experience. Reulecke's statement "[e]benso wie die Bilder die Wirklichkeit nicht abbilden, kann das Verhaltnis eines Textes wie Hofmanns Erzahlung zu einem Bild wie Bruegels Blindensturz keine Ubersetzung darstellen," supports my contention of a multiple/variable rather than binary/static relationship between image and text in this reading of ekphrasis (235).

Hofmann's text provides an aesthetic conundrum with regard to the representation of objects in space versus narratives in time, particularly when read in light of Lessing's Laokoon. As Reulecke points out, the artist attempts to represent precisely those things which cause the greatest complications for the work of art:
   Er malt ungestalte Menschen in einer Situation, in welcher sie
   Schmerz empfinden und diesem in Schreien Ausdruck verleihen.
   Ausserdem stellt er sie in einem transitorischen Moment dar,
   namlich wahrend des Fallens. Man konnte also annehmen, dass Hofmann
   eine Gegenschrift zur Laokoon-Asthetik verfast hat. (212)

While I agree that Hofmann presents an artist who challenges Lessing's representational parameters regarding visual representation, I argue that the author's creation of narrators from Bruegel's beggars actually results in the sort of ekphrasis Lessing most ardently endorsed. Just as Homer's action-based description of Achilles's shield stands as Lessing's ultimate example of a successful verbal representation of the visual sign--because it is rooted in the narrative progression of the creation of the shield--so too is Hofmann's novel. Following the blind beggars on their journey to the home of the artist, then viewing the artistic process through the eyes of the subjects, the reader is given a new perspective of the painting through the sequential narration of prose. Insomuch as Bruegel's Parable of the Blind challenges Lessing's rules of representation, Hofmann's Der Blindensturz stands as a shining example of his theory at its most potent.

Works Cited

Boehm, Gottfried, and Helmut Pfotenhauer, eds. Beschreibungskunst- Kunstbeschreibung: Ekphrasis von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Munich: Fink, 1995.

Graf, Fritz. "Ekphrasis: Die Entstehung der Gattung in der Antike." Boehm and Pfotenhauer 143-56.

Gross, Sabine. "Bild-Text-Zeit: Ekphrasis in Gert Hofmanns 'Der Blindensturz.'" Bild im Text--Text und Bild. Ed. Ulla Fix and Hans Wellmann. Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag Carl Winter, 2000. 105-28.

Hagstrum, Jean H. The Sister Arts : The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958.

Heffernan, James A. W Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Hofmann, Gert. Der Blindensturz. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1994.

Horace. Horace for Students of Literature: The "Ars Poetica" and Its Tradition. Ed. O. B. Hardison Jr. and Leon Golden. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1995.

Kosler, Hans Christian, ed. Gert Hofmann: Auskunft fur Leser. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1987.

Kranz, Gisbert. Das Bildgedicht: Theorie, Lexikon, Bibliographie. Cologne: Bohlau, 1981.

Lagerroth, Ulla-Britta, Hans Lund and Erik Hedling, eds. Interart Poetics: Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Lessings Werke. Vol. 4. Leipzig: G.J. Goschen'sche Verlagshandlung, 1869.

Loffler, Sigrid. "Hofmanns Verstorungen." Kosler 38-41.

Lutzeler, Paul Michael. "Gert Hofmann: Der verstossene Sohn. Ein Workportrat." Kosler 50-58.

Najdek, Kamilla. "Das Bild zum Wort, Worte bei einem Bild. Zu Gert Hofmanns Der Blindensturz." Literatur und Theologie: Schreibprozesse zwischen biblischer Uberlieferung und geschichtlicher Erfahrung. Ed. Karol Sauerland and Ulrich Wergin. Wurzburg: Konigshausen und Neumann, 2005. 275-87.

Panter, Mary Lou. "Pieter Bruegel, the Elder: An Artist and His Times." Creativity and Madness: Psychological Studies of Art and Artists. Ed. Barry M. Panter et al. Burbank: Aimed Press, 1995. 161-74.

Pulver, Elsbeth. "Erzahler Gert Hofmann." Kosler 159-63.

Reulecke, Anne Kathrin. Geschriebene Bilder: Zum Kunst- und Mediendiskurs in der Gegenwartsliteratur. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2002.

Schafroth, Heinz F. "Der ausgebeutete Schrei." Kosler 156-58.

Schede, Hans-Georg. Gert Hofmann: Werkmonographie. Wurzburg: Konigshausen und Neumann, 1999.

Schmitz-Emans, Monika. Die Literatur, die Bilder und das Unsichtbare: Spielformen literarischer Bildinterpretation vom 18. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert. Wurzburg: Konigshausen und Neumann, 1999.

Spinozzi Paola. "Ekphrasis as Portrait: A.S. Byatt's Fictional and Visual Doppelganger." Writing and Seeing: Essays on Word and Image. Ed. Rui Carvalho Homem and Maria de Fatima Lambert. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. 223-31.

Sudhoff, Heinke. Ikonographische Untersuchungen zur 'Blindheilung' und zum 'Blindensturz': ein Beitrag zu Pieter Bruegels Neapler Gemalde von 1568. Diss. Bonn, 1981.

Urban-Halle, Peter. "Schauplatz Menschenkopf." Kosler 92-105.

Weisstein, Ulrich, ed. Literatur und bildende Kunst: Ein Handbuch zur Theorie und Praxis eines komparatistischen Grenzgebiets. Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1992.


(1) For more on the history of image/text relations, see Boehm and Pfotenhauer, eds.; Weisstein, ed.; Schmitz-Emans; Hagstrum; Lagerroth, Lund and Hedling, eds.

(2) Najdek writes, "Das Besondere aber an Gert Hofmanns Verfahren ist das Verweilen in der Welt des Gemaldes, und zwar so, wie sie moglicherweise die Blinden hatten erfahren konnen" (275).

(3) See in particular Spinozzi (223).

(4) Sudhoff discusses the iconographical history of Bruegel's work in great detail in her dissertation Ikonographische Untersuchungen (8-9).

(5) Gisbert Kranz has noted no fewer than nine texts based on this Bruegel composition--the most popular of which are the poems by Carlo Carduna and William Carlos Williams--while Hofmann's novel stands as a rare prose interpretation (447).

(6) The painter's trouble with his eyesight is revealed in an exchange with his companion: "Und das Augenlicht, fragt der gute Freund zogernd, wie war es in den letzten Wochen? Das Augenlicht, sagt der Maler ... Lassen wir das Augenlicht." The avoidance of this sensitive topic underlines the fact that losing his sight is his greatest fear (Hofmann 95).

(7) Sigrid Loffler notes that the outsider motif is a favorite of Hofmann's, an author who not coincidentally considers himself "ein Aussenseiter und Einzelganger, ohne Clique und ohne Gruppe, ein Solitar der Literatur" (40).

(8) In this particular passage of the Ars Poetica, Horace explains that humans are affected by both visual and verbal representation in an analogous manner: "Poetry resembles painting. Some works will captivate you when you stand very close to them and others if you are at a greater distance. This one prefers a darker vantage point, that one wants to be seen in the light [...]. This pleases only once, that will give pleasure even if we go back to it ten times over" (361-65).

(9) In the second chapter of Lessing's Laokoon, he problematizes the critical balance between truth in expression and the limits of representation. The agony of the scream cannot be shown in a mouth too wide agape, for the beauty of the pain is then lost in an unsightly expression: "Und dieses nun auf den Laokoon angewendet, so ist die Ursache klar, die ich suche. Der Meister arbeitete auf die hochste Schonheit, unter den angenommenen Umstanden des korperlichen Schmerzes. Dieser, in aller seiner entstellenden Heftigkeit, war mit jener nicht zu verbinden. Er musste ihn also herabsetzen; er musste Schreien in Seufzen mildern; nicht weil das Schreien eine unedle Seele verrat, sondern weil es das Gesicht auf eine ekelhafte Weise verstellet" (110).

(10) Urban-Halle reminds us that the representation of the scream is the very purpose of Hofmann's text: "Aber es ist kein historischer Rapport uber die Entstehung eines Bildes. Nach Hofmanns eigener Aussage habe ihn Brueghel wenig interessiert, sein Vorbild sei eher Francis Bacon gewesen, den die Darstellung des Schreis immer beschaftigt habe" (93).


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Author:Knapp, Thyra E.
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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