Excerpt from “Bodies That Speak: Ekphrastic Voices in DeLillo’s Mao II and Falling Man”

Bodies that Speak: Ekphrastic Voices in DeLillo’s Mao II  and Falling Man

Don DeLillo’s acclaimed works of fiction, Falling Man and Mao II each thematically explore the power of affectation of visual representation on both the individual as well as cultural levels. In both of these novels. DeLillo uses ekphrasis as a means to provide insight into the psyche of his characters as well as to explore the relationship between images and words and the respective authority of each form of media. DeLillo’s ekphrastic representation of various visual media also explores the manipulation of the physical body as a means of artistic expression and a form of communication. DeLillo’s ekphrasis as well as portrayal of his characters’ experiences with his visual representations lend to an overarching commentary on the influential nature of image in contemporary culture.

Beginning with the argument that DeLillo’s texts are ekphrastic, it is important to call into question what constitutes an ekphrastic text. Ekphrastic theory has often been reserved for discourses surrounding the relationship between poetry and fine art. Homer’s shield, for example, is cited by literary scholars as the first example of ekphrasis in literature. However, much contestation regarding the definition of ekphrasis has taken place and continues into the post-modern literary moment. WJT Mitchell, a well known post-modern theorist who focuses on the unique language of images, argues that ekphrasis has evolved to incorporate any verbal representation of a visual representation (13), bringing works of prose as well as other art media into the discussion of what ekphrastic expression means for a both the verbal and visual worlds.

Calling to attention the more critical aspects of the ekphrastic genre, it is interesting to consider the tension between written and image based representations, both in the novels as well as within the larger scope of ekphrasis. The tension between the differing artistic media suggests the formation of a binary opposition that places one art form in contest with the other in terms of “seeing subject” and “that which is seen” (Krieger 4). Within ekphrasis there exists the voice of the subject and necessarily by contrast, the silence of the object. In agreement with this “paragonal” theory of ekphrastic expression, there must exist a dominating form, the written word as subject, as well as an inferior “other”, the representation of an imagined visual object. W J T Mitchell expounds upon the idea of a paragonal relationship, bringing it into conversation with its ideological commentary. He states that the voice in ekphrastic poetry reflects “the emotions ekphrastic poetry harbors towards its object” (Hedley 22), and the relationships between the voice in ekphrastic poetry and the ekphrastic objects are “the sublimated versions of our ambivalence about social others” (Mitchell 156). This theoretical approach to ekphrasis thus aligns with a Western narrative that is based on the establishment of  power at the expense of an inferior other.

DeLillo’s depiction of media images is a consistent component of Mao II. Each of the images DeLillo portrays in his novel bear cultural weight within the world of the novel. Each functions as a form of news media, a story within the story composed through ekphrastic expression. Throughout the book DeLillo provides descriptive scenes regarding the action that is taking place in various prominent news media. However the ekphrastic expression is not simply a depiction for the sake of the novel’s plot, but rather a structural apparatus that points to the inherent capacity of visual media to yield an influence over its observing subjects. Mao II  on a larger level becomes an alternative means of experiencing literature. DeLillo’s words are the frame for the distinct scenes of mass chaos and violence to occur, giving the reader not only creating a linguistic experience, but working to forge the same visual connection as the characters in the novel. The culture of media images that DeLillo portrays depends upon his language for its very portrayal and relation of power, but at the same time the images fain their own control, their own power over the observer, whether imagined or real.

Don DeLillo explores this binary and the deeper implications of ekphrastic texts in Mao II during the evocative scenes depicted in the second as well as twelfth chapters. In these scenes, DeLillo locates Karen in a space of physical isolation. Even though she is in the company of Scott in Chapter 2 and that of Brita during the latter part of Chapter 12, she is completely drawn in to the world of the images, so much so that is becomes confused with her own reality. DeLillo describes her as completely alone and totally immersed in the images she sees. The images absorb Karen, and through Don DeLillo’s ekphrastic relation, the reader comes to witness the same atrocities that speak so significantly to Karen. The news images speak out through the visual mode about a devastating cultural reality of human violence. DeLillo speaks to the reader about the cultural affectation of images and media. Thus the images have the power to move Karen, and the representation of the images serve to affect the reader. DeLillo gives agency to the news images as a way to reflect the powerful role that images play in contemporary culture. The fact that the news images are silent in the novel reflects the immediacy of the imagistic impact on culture, an impact that is autonomous of language. Contrastingly, verbal and written representations, such as Bill Gray’s novel, fail to produce the same scale of ramifications. Gray acknowledges that “in our world we eat and sleep the image and we pray to it and wear it too (37).  The lack of a manifestation of Gray’s novel within DeLillo reflects the way in which image culture has the effect of subverting the written.  Though it is DeLillo the author that provides representations of the culturally imperative visual representations, the impact on Karen’s character suggests that DeLillo is conveying the dominance of the visual over the verbal.

Both Falling Man and Mao 11  are significant in their ekphrastic expressions of visual scenes. Though the visual representations extend beyond the standard boundaries of what Murray Krieger deems “plastic arts,” painting, drawing, sculpture etc., the verbal representation of visual representation plays a prominent role in commenting not only on the characters in the novel, but also on DeLillo’s insistence of the power of image culture. The the character the Falling Man and the still-life paintings reflected upon throughout Falling Man, as well as the images Karen observes, through the media and first hand, provide a space for DeLillo to explore the dynamic between language and images, and the relevance of the relationship to contemporary culture. These main ekphrastic objects in the novels serve to provide such commentary through the negotiations of physical bodies, suggesting that the bodies themselves server as  instruments of communication in the contemporary moment.


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