Something of the Eternal: A.S. Byatt and Vincent Van Gogh

Article excerpt

In refuting the commonly held idea that word and image exist as antagonists, art historian E.H. Gombrich influenced A.S. Byatt to investigate a fusion of visual and verbal language in her 1985 novel Still Life. Byatt's scheme disintegrates when the characters most skilled in this double communication encounter not illumination, but death.

**********

I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which
the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual
radiance and vibration of our coloring.--Vincent van Gogh
(Letter 531) (1)

Is the history of culture "in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs," as W.J.T. Mitchell claims (43)? Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology, declares that our logocentric society places words in a position of privilege that necessarily denies power to other methods of communication, and many literary theorists continue to accept Derrida's assertions. John Berger and Susan Sontag in the 1970s espoused the minority view that visual language is more powerful than verbal, although Berger's advocacy of the visual differs greatly from Sontag's warnings about the aggressiveness of the visual image. Robert P. Fletcher, in a recent PMLA article, posits that artists who attempt to combine visual and verbal language necessarily emphasize fractured and multiple meanings, destroying illusions of unity. E.H. Gombrich was one of the few researchers of visual knowledge who refused the antagonism of this binary visual/verbal formulation and stressed a necessary continuum between the realm of speech and writing on the one hand and the visual on the other. Gombrich insisted on the sophistication of our visual abilities, promoting the visual organism as an active agent guided by an "inbuilt sense of order" (Sense 5).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"One of my great heroes is Gombrich," said British novelist A.S. Byatt in a 1990 interview (Tredell 68). Byatt follows Gombrich in combining enthusiasm for both the immediacy and vigour of the visual with the methodical pragmatism of words in her 1985 novel Still Life. One of the subjects of Still Life--the second book in a quartet about an intellectual English family named the Potters, set in the 1950s through the 1970s--is the work of Vincent van Gogh. (This series consists of The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman). Byatt presents van Gogh as a guiding presence equally skilled with words and images. "The man could both paint and name a chair," says one of Byatt's characters enviously in Still Life (70), and several of Byatt's characters strive to acquire a similar dual authority in images and words. Still Life, in my opinion, is the key work of Byatt's career to date. Byatt meant Still Life to be a "plain novel about birth, marriage and death" and about "biology described from very close up, in language," she said in a 1996 radio interview with Eleanor Wachtel. Byatt and her characters optimistically promoted the notion that language could achieve meaningful congruency with elemental human experiences. Her faith in the validity of this project connects her, however wistfully, to modernist thinkers like William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot and, even more, to the Renaissance poets who were the subject of Byatt's abandoned PhD dissertation on religious metaphor. She writes, "My lost paradise was Eliot's elegant fiction of the undissociated sensibility, in which Donne felt his thought as immediately as the odour of a rose" (Passions 2). That Byatt wrote a modernist novel with early modern overtones in 1985, when her contemporaries were immersed in postmodernism, goes some way toward explaining why one of her first commentators, Richard Todd, ascribes to her work an element of "inscrutability" (22, 75). Byatt's style is, at times, an uneasy blend of pastiche, myth, fabulism, modernist aestheticism and academic commentary, but in Still Life she toiled to create a particular kind of realism, one influenced by van Gogh. …