Trompe L'Oeil with Writing Materials, Edwaert Colyer, CA. 1702. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: V&A Museum

Trompe l’oeil with Writing Materials, Edwaert Colyer, CA. 1702. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: V&A Museum


By what processes do thinkers and artists create their own versions of things? And ‘can thinkers, artists and scientists who have created our world and histories still speak to us in the twenty-first century?’ (McCulloch, 2014: 1). The question of what might be called ‘precursors into the future’ has much wider ramifications and runs deeper than one might at first have imagined. The most productive model to answer these questions is one of interplay, the interplay between present and past, local and foreign, the familiar and the strange, the conscious and the unconscious. This model unsettles the oppositions listed in the previous sentence by reading the past in the present, the local in the foreign, the strange in the unfamiliar and the conscious in the unconscious. Here lies the precondition of recognition that affirms complexity and heterogeneity and richness as values. This essay explores the notion of ‘precursors into the future’ through partaking of others within stories, histories, and myths that singly and cumulatively constitute human identity. As such, it is a time-honouring meditation on the paradoxes of creativity whose conclusion opens up other areas of investigation, and therefore a dialogue with other thinkers, artists and thinkers.

The title of this article takes it cues from an essay written by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in 1949. In it, Carpentier describes the discovery of a new land in terms of a return journey to the marvellous Latin American specificities from the People’s Republic of China, from the worlds of Islam, from Russia, and from cities ranging from Prague, Leipzig and Weimar. Carpentier records Peking’s black houses with orange roofs, guardian dragons, curled griffins, the Patios of the Summer Palace, Nanjing’s architectural subtleties, medieval walls in Nandang, crowds in Shanghai, sampans, rice fields, delicate pastel paintings, Persian miniatures, labyrinthine streets, textures and geometrical symmetries in design and writing and music; columns in Leningrad, the Winter Palace, Peter and Paul’s Fortress, the texts of  Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Lenin, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Bolshoi. The architecture of Prague; Faust; Kepler; Mozart; Kafka. Carpentier’s travelogue is also a journey into perception, a reading preparation for appreciation of diversity across cultures and times. It is a reading preparing for recognition of the magical in the Latin American real, by which I mean both ‘reality’ as it is, understood in common sense, and the ‘real’ as Lacan understands it, namely, as that beyond representation.

Carpentier’s essay verges on the mythical in its appreciation of the specific, even the banal, in its figurative possibilities, in its irresistible connectedness with other figures, traditions, allegiances, stories, rituals, ideas and meanings that both inform and exceed it, allowing its marvellous particularities while affirming the links, allusions and echoes, or points of connection, that invite markers of identity and measures of significance within a wide and complex view of culture and the long-sighted view of history. Carpentier’s essay heralds an economy of exchange between the other and the same, between modes of cognition and representation and communication. It is realistic and yet surreal. As such it might be said to be visionary—an incipient manifesto for cross-disciplinary collaboration, inter-disciplinary dialogue and self-reflection. At any rate, it is an affirmation of and for the undying of stories through borrowing, translating, evoking and making connections.

Whether mean or generous, artists, and especially writers, are borrowers and lenders. They are extravagant in their travels and promiscuous in their connections. Writers source ideas from images and some of these images are deeply buried in memories that are themselves buried into the ineffable realm of the real. Visual artists source new images from images, and sometimes texts. All seem to touch the collective imagination. The fact that such figures as Oedipus, Antigone, Hamlet and Don Quixote have entered the collective imagination is a case in point. We rely on words for communication and our words rely on images, which in turn might rely on some uncanny pre-visual and pre-linguistic relation. Such a view projects a glance towards the past as constitutive of human subjectivity and creativity by suggesting some archival interplay between modes of perception and apperception.

In the 8th century BC, classical Greek author Hesiod bemoaned that all stories had been told. In the 5th century BC, Aeschylus acknowledged that he was drawing upon Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey to compose his plays. Shakespeare famously borrowed all of his plots, crafting incredible transformations upon them. The eighteenth century in both English and French literature is brimming with figures from classical Greece and Rome. In the twentieth century, James Joyce brings the fabulous variety of Odysseus’ wanderings to bear upon the life of Leopold Bloom in the space of one day in the city of Dublin (Joyce, 1922). Praising this avant-garde work, T. S. Eliot refers to ‘the mythic method’ as a mode of referencing that is also ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’ (1975: 178). Eliot’s narrative poem of the same year, The Waste Land, borrows extensively from a vast range of texts (Eliot, 1922). Contemporary writers acknowledge the influence of their predecessors.

In a tetralogy of critical books, Harold Bloom analyses the pressure of past achievement upon present performance, aptly starting with The Anxiety of influence (Bloom, 1973). Further, in his piece ‘The Literature of Exhaustion,’ American academic and novelist John Barth addresses the perception of a ‘used-upness’ (1984: 63) of literary forms. Ten years later in another essay, ‘The Literature of Replenishment’ (Barth 1984), he indicates that the challenge may in itself be an answer. Examples of this paradox have been proliferating constantly since times immemorial. The interplay across times, genres and disciplines complements literary traditions, including the deviance from these traditions. Although rooted in the past, by projecting a glance towards the future innovators such as Joyce, Eliot, and Barth project a glance towards the future that is engaged in a constant act of revision to reflect the ever-changing notions of self and identity and the way these are portrayed in literature. This suggests that ‘new creation comes not from some urwelt where ever-originating inspiration burns, but from the everyday world where all that is extant is ready for re-fashioning’ (Gibson, 2014: 9).

While explicit methods vary from overt or structural thematic reference and specific allusion to much less obvious attribution, they highlight that the creative process comprehends something that is inherent to and yet exceeds human understanding and communication. It would seem that we create by making comparisons and connections, which means that we tend to the metaphorical axis of language as we develop our ideas. This is the way perception and language work for speaking beings. Because we cannot avoid repetition, we might play with the fine possibilities this recognition affords. Thus, we might, as Roland Barthes suggests in his Mythologies, consider the mythic mode as a mode of language use, as a recognition of the interplay of the other and the same. Further, because the work of metaphor necessarily entails a remainder, something that exceeds meaning, one might heed what escapes re-cognition.


Both in real life and fiction, the ‘volte-face’ (or about-face), when someone turns around to confront someone else, is typically understood as being a moment of truth and a gesture of recognition that implies the acknowledgment of the other and the assertion of the self. The about-face is a question of making sense. This is the assumption in W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz, a novel with photographs showing real-life events which problematizes the theme of the encounter with an unknown other. Unsurprisingly, the moment the narrator is confronted with the gaze of the other is, in both text and photograph, a moment of tension and high expectation that generates anxiety. Yet, paradoxically, the presence of photographs defers the arousal of anxiety and even deflates the impact of this moment in the narrative. One important function of the visual material is to highlight the literariness of the text. By literariness, I mean ‘the transformation of a verbal act into a poetic work and the system of devices that bring about such a transformation’ (Jakobson, 1980: 23). Focusing primarily on linguistic structures, Jakobson refers to textual elements devoid of ‘extraliterary’ connotations pertaining to other disciplines such as psychology, politics or philosophy. In short, literariness is about what makes a text a work of literature. Thus in Austerlitz, rather than convey the real and its authenticity (Barthes, 1981: 169), the photographs highlight the fact that the story is first and foremost the stuff of literature.

Austerlitz is a reflection on trauma in the wake of the Second World War. Yet, the plot develops around the notion of volte-face. The chief narrator delivers the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an Englishman he first met in in 1960s during a trip to Belgium, a man who is fascinated by the architecture of train stations and war fortifications, as shown in several photographs in the book. Gradually, Austerlitz reveals that he has dedicated his adult life to re-covering his past. During his teenage years, he discovers that he was adopted at the age of four and a half and that he originally came from Central Europe. He then sets out to find the trace of his parents and finds that they were Jewish and died during the war—his mother in the concentration camp at Terezín and his father in a French camp. It is in Prague that he meets Věra; an old friend of his mother’s who took care of him during his early childhood. Some of Austerlitz’s memories resurface and he thinks that he ought to be able to identify his mother in various archives, including films made by the Nazis and photographs. At last, ‘facing Vera’ (Sebald 2001: 152), he wants the past itself to look back at him, and longs for his mother’s gaze. What he anticipates, is the truth of his own history.

Although in Austerlitz the verbal and the visual at first seem to complement each other, each system of mimesis reinforcing its counterpart, the narrative is constantly disrupted, so that the bond between sign and referent is broken, or broken off. There is a certain resistance to the mutual reinforcement of the verbal and the visual, a resistance founded not on rivalry, as is the case in more traditional forms of narratives, but on a convergence of perception, memory, visual representation, and verbal meta-representation that together strive for a clarity of meaning that is always just slightly out of focus.

The rhetorical practice entailing the interplay between the verbal and the visual interaction is ekphrasis, a longstanding term defined in 1955 by Leo Spitzer as ‘the description of an objet d’art by the medium of the word (1955: 89). Ekphrasis has also been defined in broader terms. For example, W.J.T. Mitchell defines it as ‘the verbal representation of visual representation (1994: 152) while for Murray Krieger it is an attempt ‘to imitate in words an object of the plastic arts’ (1992: 6), and for Ross Gibson it is ‘the practice of glossing one mode of expression with another mode (2014: 12). From the correlation of the verbal and the visual, ekphrasis has a trajectory that harks back to Simonides through Horace and the ut picture poesis tradition to Lessing and his essay on the ‘contest’ (Lessing, 1992: 115) between painting and poetry. The classical exemplar of ekphrasis is usually considered to be Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in the eighteenth book of the Iliad, while the romantic exemplar is Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ The idea, beginning with Simonides (according to Plutarch), that ‘painting is mute poetry and poetry a speaking picture’ (Lessing, 1992: 4) contains, despite its chiastic balance, a privileging of one medium over the other. As Wendy Steiner puts it: ‘next to the “speaking picture,” the mute poem seems a blighted thing’ (1982: 6). However, the question of which medium is favoured ultimately depends on how we assign value to the terms. Steiner writes:

The asymmetry behind simonides’ rhetoric suggests that a poem has everything to gain in the pictorial analogy… But if one believes that poetry is painting with a voice while painting is mere ‘mute poetry,’ the hierarchy implied in the comparison is reversed. (Steiner, 1982: 6)

It is better to see than to speak, says the painter. It is better to be blind than to be mute, says the poet. Muteness, unlike blindness, is a privative state with no corresponding compensation, such as insight or prophecy. Although I suspect Wordsworth would have disagreed, being able to hold ‘mute dialogues’ with the mother’s breast in anticipation of the ‘speaking face’ of nature (1979, 2.268: 5.14).

Ekphrasis not an innocent discourse about the interplay of words and images, poetry and the plastic arts, but an ‘antagonism’ (Hefferman, 1993: 7) through which words and images seek to draw the line between and around separate practices. More helpful, perhaps is the concept of ekphrastic poetry, as Mitchell describes it: ‘ the genre in which texts encounter their own semiotic “others,” those rival, alien modes of representation called the visual, graphic, plastic, or “spatial” arts (1994: 156). Nonetheless, traditional modes of discourse pit the verbal and the visual against each other in a competition for aesthetic superiority, thus highlighting the possibilities and limitations of each medium of representation. Ekphrasis is a genre inherently fraught with tension as it pushes the limits of its field of practice. We are dealing with meta-representations in which the verbal contains glosses, frames, or fixes the visual in a language of interpretation and displacement.


This excursus into ekphrasis raises issues that are central to this issue of Double Dialogues. There are three types of ekphrastic gestures here, though one may be more dominant than the others: (1) pictures without words, or anti-ekphrasis, in which a visual image appears without explication; (2) pictures with words, where visual image and textual gloss fit in exploratory fashion; and (3) words without pictures, in which the referent is absent and therefore not subject to corroboration in the text. This is the most common one, both in creative texts since Homer and in the meta-textual chronicles of literary criticism and art criticism as well as their contemporary incarnations, including ficto-criticism.

As I write, of course, I am barely conscious of being haunted. I am haunted by the images and accents in the essays and creative works that compose this issue. There are recurrent words, images and themes, even some allusion to a ‘broken music.’ I am haunted by images and accents from my childhood. I am haunted by memories of my newly dead grand-mother, who came from farm near Ypres. So let us return to Sebald’s Austerlitz and approach the topos that grounds a number of the essays in this Issue: Flanders, and Flemish painting as node between cultural heritage, the Holocaust, surreal and magical realms as well as ‘occluded histories that have a capacity to negate assumptions of a fixed order’ (McCulloch, 2014: 1).

The example of ekphrasis as words without pictures comes early in the novel. The narrator and the title character, having met accidentally in Antwerp, agree to meet the following day on the tack beside the river Schelde. Here is the narrator’s description of Jacques’ ekphrastic commentary:

Pointing to the broad river sparkling in the morning sun, he spoke of a picture painted by Lucas van Valckenborch towards the end of the sixteenth century during what is now called the Little Ice Age, showing the frozen Schelde from the opposite side of the bank, with the city of Antwerp very dark beyond it and a strip of flat countryside stretching out towards the sea. A shower of snow is falling from the lowering sky above the tower of the cathedral of Our Lady, and out on the river now before us some hundred years later, said Austerlitz, the people of Antwerp are amusing themselves on the ice, the common folk in coats of earthy brown colors, persons of greater distinction in black coats with white lace ruffs round their necks. In the foreground, close to the right-hand edge of the picture, a lady has just fallen. She wears a canary-yellow dress, and the cavalier bending over her in concern is clad in red breeches, very conspicuous in the pallid light. Looking at the river now, thinking of that painting and its tiny figures, said Austerlitz, I feel as if the moment depicted by Lucas van Valckenborch had never come to an end, as if the canary-yellow lady had only just fallen over or swooned, as if the black velvet hood had only this moment dropped away from her head, as if the little accident, which no doubt goes unnoticed by most viewers, were always happening over and over again, and nothing and no one could remedy it. (Sebald, 2001: 13-14)

The first response to this striking description may be to note the overlapping of immediate perception, through the sight of the river Schelde, with the memory, and its personal and historical associations, of a particular aesthetic representation of that landscape. I am intrigued by the contrasts and reversals between the sight of the river as motivating trigger and the memory of the painting: the summer’s day in the novel contrasts with the season of winter in the picture; the ‘sparkling’ ‘morning sun’ evokes the ‘pallid light’ of the ‘Little Ice Age; the observers’ point of view of Antwerp is from the ‘opposite bank’ compared with the painting, etc. But if we refer to the actual painting, Luca van Valckenborch’s View of Antwerp with the Frozen Schelde (oil on wood, 42.5 x 63.5 cm, dated 1590, now hanging in the Stãdel Museum, Frankfurt), we immediately notice what Austerlitz leaves out of his impromptu ekphrasis: the people gathered around the fire in the centre foreground; the man and woman carrying firewood; the sleigh-horse curiously dressed up as reindeer; the figure camouflaged in the tree shedding off branches for the bonfire. Interestingly, all these occluded images are of workers.

To be fair to Sebald, perhaps these omitted details are just part of the ‘studium’, the ‘polite interest’ of the work while the fallen woman constitutes the ‘punctum,’ the unique, disturbing ‘detail’ (Barthes, 1981:27 & 42). The fallen ‘canary-yellow lady’ to the rest of the painting is exactly similar in structure to the fall of Icarus in Pieter Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, dated ca. 1558, thirty-two years before van Valckenborch’s picture. Van Valckenborch was Breughel’s student and, no doubt, was heavily influenced by him. Boyd Tonkin, in a tribute to Sebald published in The Independent shortly after his death in 2001, notes that Sebald had a postcard of Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus pinned outside his office (Tonkin, 2009). We might also recall Sebald’s reference to Icarus in After Nature (Sebald, 1988:105-6). So is the stuff of myth-making born.

However, what is arresting in this first instance of ekphrasis in Austerlitz is the corroborating evidence of the picture itself. We are not graced with the reproduction of the painting of the river Schelde. Instead, we are offered Austerlitz’s ekphrastic metatext, or perhaps more precisely the narrator’s version of Austerlitz’s reported speech, itself frozen within the form of Sebald’s novel. Why did Sebald not include the painting of the frozen Schelde? The answer might have something to do with the unreliability of the narrators, or with the unreliability of memory itself. This is what the excerpt suggests: Sebald uses this artistic metaphor to link the painting to history through the ‘trac[ing] of countless fine lines’ (Sebald, 2001: 14). Perhaps, as is often the case, the most significant image is left absent, as in Barthes’s Camera Lucida, where he discusses the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ of his late mother (Barthes, 1981: 70) which is deliberately excluded from the text. As with Sebald, the reader is only offered the ekphrasis of the image. Barthes’ motivation is made clear a few pages further: it has something to do with his theory of the stadium and the punctum. However, it is difficult not to invoke the power of repression in this struggle between word and image.

By not including Valckenborch’s painting, Sebald is giving us Austerlitz’s version, a kind of witnessing that cannot be verified without going outside the text. The effect is akin to ‘notional ekphrasis’ (Hollander, 1988: 209), that is, a description of the marvellous real, the description of an imaginary picture, one that never existed. The notion of absence in Sebald is at once forensic and rhetorical. On the one hand, Austerlitz’s testimony cannot be tested, and, on the other hand, it is a metatext, but without the text. Through the shifting gaze of Austerlitz and the framing narrator, there is a displacement from nature to art and from truth to text. Not only is the painting mute, it is also invisible in a certain way.

Asked about the use of images in his work, Sebald takes us straight to this question of visual muteness as intrinsic to the creative process:

The process of writing, as I drifted into it, was in many instances occasioned by pictures that happened to come my way, that I stared at for long periods of time and that seemed to contain some enigmatic elements that I wanted to tease out. So they did form the instigation for trying to write this kind of thing. Because of that, they have kept their place. It eventually became some sort of habit, of including these pictures. I think they do tell their own story within the prose narrative and do establish a second level of discourse that is mute. It would be an ambition of mine to produce the kind of prose which has a degree of mutedness about it. (Wood, 1998: 24)

For Sebald, the idea of mutedness is at the heart of the writing process as a transposition of the ‘sense of uncertainty between fact and fiction’ (Wood, 1998: 25), the tension between the documentary and the literary that produces ‘a second level of discourse.’ It is this ‘uncertainty’ that Sebald seeks:

Everything that the narrator relates is mediated through sometimes one or two stages, which makes for quite complicated syntactical labyrinthine structures and in one sense exonerates the narrator, because he never pretends that he knows more than is actually possible. (Wood, 1998: 28)

It is curious that Sebald, despite his character’s relentless pursuing and documenting the historical and emotional facts of his life in the shadow of the Holocaust, should use the word ‘exonerate,’ whose forensic associations are at first at odds with the ekphrastic discourse at hand. Nevertheless, it captures the paradox at the heart of Sebald’s art; his method is highly visual, yet oblique. It is like translating a sight into a series of mimetic reflections. Ekphrasis, in this sense, is a transposition of both eye and ear into a second level order discourse that contains the lie of repression. Ekphrasis here is marvellously real: it is fabulation.


Wide-ranging as they are in their modes, approaches, and concerns, the essays gathered in this issue demonstrate that ekphrasis speaks to us in the twenty-first century as ‘the practice of glossing one mode of expression with another mode (Gibson, 2014: 12). As such, ekphrasis enables a dialogue with thinkers, artists and scientists from the past, and gestures towards imagined futures. The essays are arranged thematically and geographically. We move from Flanders via Cardiff and travel throughout Europe, only to bury into the realms of the unconscious and to reappear in Canada. We then move on to warmer, though no less haunted climes: Hiroshima and Australia. We end back in Cardiff, addressing an old quarrel.

Frances Woodley convinces us that the genre of still life is one of those worlds to which we can bring our own, and with which trans-historical conversation and transformation can take place in the making of new art. The profusion of still life painting that followed them in later centuries, testifies to the coherence of a genre previously honed to varieties of specialist perfection. She examines the art of Flemish masters such as Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens to ask questions about possible synergies in contemporary art, and about where their methods have migrated to, and what remains to be uncovered and recovered by contemporary artists. Crucially, she asks what might also be available to contemporary artists in these works that was not available at the time of their making?

Like Woodley, Robb Rogema looks back to the Dutch school of painting, but this time to examine how landscape is represented in relation to the evocation of climate. The urgent question Rogema asks concerns the ways in which art may foster an understanding of climate change with a view to anticipating its impacts. In a way, Rogema addresses the notion of ekphrasis, yet does not pit the verbal against the visual. Instead, his essay invites the reader out of the text to ponder ethical issues.

Lucy Houghton examines the approach to space within Franz Kafka’s short story ‘The Burrow’ and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and discusses how their depictions of space anticipated the significance of the virtual in the current age. It also assesses the subsequent effects that these authors have had upon contemporary artists. In a double game played out between text and image, she creates a new topos and assigns new instructions for artists to draw upon. Given this scenario, self-representations are no longer the product of static narrative, but is rather characterized by shifting boundaries between fact and fiction where multiple subject positions enter into play.

Rina Bruinsma revisits André Breton’s Soluble Fish against paradigms of language and the unconscious. In particular, she reassesses Breton’s work against the grain of the surrealist project, of Freudian psychoanalysis and Nietszchean philosophy in a compelling argument. Further, using an extract of her own creative practice, she proposes the taxonomy of ‘new Surrealism’ she enticingly calls the ‘Marvellous.’

The next essay, whose title echoes Bruinsma’s preoccupation with surrealism and its investigation of the unconscious, takes its cue from a creative work devised by this author, in collaboration with a sound artist, Catherine Clover. The essay interrogates the tension between the written and the visual to explore the field of hearing. It argues that the concept of voice opens up another aspect of reality which is experienced as disturbing when it is transmitted by pure sound because it makes heard a real of limitless sound unconstrained by the dimension of language.

Michael Giffin circles the idea of genetic criticism in a meditation sparked off by Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead to question the notion of historicized subject as applies to the creative process. Like the author he analyses, Giffin ‘makes it new’ in an old-fashioned sense—at least to post-critical aficionados. His essay probes the genealogy of a major twentieth century author and gestures towards recent textual, genetic, and critical approaches to literature, It brings back into the critical conversation priceless insights into the making of ‘genius’.

Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, Kim Roberts considers an in-progress investigation of the ways in which visitors to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park navigate its conceptual and physical spaces. She positions the Park as an activated geography that is generated through a continual process of cultural production and asks what potential is offered through such re-conceptualisation. The question remains open, of course, but it does  have Foucauldian undertones, or echoes. At least to my mind. It seems to me that Kim Roberts is linking Foucault’s definition of truth and power to the distinction that is implicit in her work between bio-power and dominant, or sovereign, power.

Focusing on the work of Australian playwright Dorothy Hewett, Peter Beaghole argues that there is now a need for theatre to be in the ‘here and now,’ that acknowledges the past and the diversity of memories that make it. In particular, he suggests that an engagement with critical nationalism to reconstruct national identities can both subdue the cultural swing and resist the damaging forces that would have nations forget. This is consistent with postcolonial inflected criticism that translate an effort  to regain a sense of identity after the event of cultural occupation by a colonizing force. The complexity of this objective results from the difficulty of integrating two distinct versions of self into an identity that can be articulated. As Beaghole suggests here, Australian literature often responds directly to colonial, and specifically canonical, texts in an attempt to refuse the presumptive othering that is generally an aspect of colonial texts. Writing back to such texts revises problematic characterisations and offers new perspectives on accepted dominant narratives.

Sarah French’s concern is political, too.  Her piece, however, is a case-study of two interrelated trajectories of one innovative theatre group, that of Brown Council. Based on interviews she devised, she explores the ongoing challenge of definitions of performance, and of engagement with feminist politics.

With ‘A broken Music,’ Christopher Norris returns us to the notion of ekphrasis and in particular to the relationship between music and poetry to evoke old and new quarrels of genre and rhetoric. In this elegy, the music of poetry is what is broken, and through referring to the achievements of  war poets such as Sassoon and Owen, Norris implies that voice and music were once the very life of poetry. The clear parallels between the situations of the two poets speak of a lost tradition which is paradoxically  recuperated in Norris’ prosody and captured with irony in the point d’orgue of the poem.



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