SZÖNYI - EMBLEMATIC WAYS OF SEEING AND THINKING: A RESPONSE

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Written by MICHAEL BATH

First, let me pay tribute to Szönyi’s paper for the way it supplies a much needed resumé of some of the most essential recent writings and current issues in emblem studies, with which I have been most closely associated, together with a theoretically informed analysis of their relevance to much wider debates on fundamental issues of representation and semiotics – from Plato through Diderot and Schopenhauer to Panofsky, Orgel, and Poststructuralism. The paper breaks new ground in the connections it finds between intrinsic research on emblems as such, and some of the wider debates on language and sign which have for the most part paid little attention hitherto to the specifics of emblem books and their progeny.

If there is a potential fracture in Szönyi’s analysis of the continuing relevance of emblem studies, it lies in the seeming contradiction between his pessimism (p.1) concerning the chances that the ‘tradition-bound symbolism’ of the emblem books is likely to survive the fate of other heavily-coded messages in such similarly superannuated forms as scholastic philosophy or alchemical speculation, and his opening statement – developed in the paper as a whole - that the emblematic conjunction of word-and-image was ‘the true forerunner of our multimedia age’. Superannuated curiosity, or postmodern forerunner? If there is indeed a fracture here, which may not be the case, I identify it not in order to deconstruct his argument but rather to expose some of the problematics which are foregrounded in his own discussion. That is one way of saying that I’m not sure I have any better answers.

As he stresses, there is no escape for any student of the early-modern emblem from the hard work of establishing or identifying the cultural codes which supply and control its potential meanings. However the efforts of an earlier generation of scholars, such as Panofsky, to coopt the emblem books, along with related forms such as hieroglyphics, mythographies, etc., into an iconological lexicon of fixed meanings on which artists could traditionally draw, have met with the scepticism of later studies as they discover how variable and endlessly productive were the potential significations which emblematic conjunctions of word and image could generate. As in linguistics, however, that does not necessarily mean, as both Orgel and W.J.T. Mitchell imply, that emblems are ‘distressingly arbitrary’, or that such iconographies are ‘the most postmodern of texts’ in Orgel’s words, though it does mean that early practitioners’ occasional claims for the emblem as an unmediated reading of the Book of Nature, an Adamic language, or a prisca theologia have to be dismissed. As in recent linguistics, however, such absolute alternatives between universal meanings on the one hand, and the wholly arbritrary sign which poststructuralism assumes on the other, may not be the only solution, and some of us would wish to appeal to relevance theory (as in Sperber and Wilson) as a way out of this theoretical impasse.

How that might apply to emblems is beyond my word length, and indeed my competence, to elaborate here. I would, however, like to return to a relevant concept of T.M. Greene’s, which I invoked in my book Speaking Pictures (1994, p.28) and which has not perhaps been accorded the importance for emblem studies that arguably it deserves. In adumbrating his suggestive concept that any period’s possibilities of communication depend on a shared mundus significans, Greene (The Light in Troy, 1982, p.20) stresses that any modus significandi for the writer assumes a modus intelligendi in the reader, and Greene, in the early-modern context of ‘imitation and discovery’ which is his subject, suggests the importance of what he calls ‘subreading’ to our proper understanding of early modern texts. ‘Subreading’ means the recognition of relevant allusions, echoes and references, and it is pervasive in emblems, where understanding the possible relations of word to image, or of image to adage, so often depends on a reader’s recognition of received commonplaces of allegory or description (topoi). Very often those will not be supplied by the emblem itself and are, as I put it, hors texte (1994, p.31). But although they may never be wholly fixed or determinate, some are always more relevant than others, and the meaning is never wholly arbitrary or up-for-grabs – though it is certainly ‘constructed’ and ‘applied’, in Orgel’s terms. That is why the competence to ‘read’ emblems can still be learned, though for the modern reader it involves the painstaking acquisition of familiarity with a fair number of received visual and rhetorical topoi, some of them very strange, which were part of the inherited modus intelligendi of the competent early reader. That such topoi are necessarily intertextual certainly suggests the relevance to emblem studies of at least one of the articles of modern Structuralist theory, but it does not necessarily signal their arbitrariness, only their relevance.

Such ‘subreading’ for the implied topos or allusion is never more relevant than when an emblem varies or subverts its predecessors, as it frequently does by associating a received, often heavily coded, image with a new motto, or by illustrating a familiar adage with an original image (emblems use so many proverbs precisely because they are familiar). Or they may vary the accustomed attributes of a familiar figure, as with Samson’s dead lion in which bees make their hive with the biblical motto ‘Out of he strong came forth sweetness’which, I suggest, only works for the viewer who recognises the O.T. allusion (Judges 14.14). That allusion is no less essential, indeed it is moreso, for the reader of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s (postmodern?) emblem which depicts the lion as a battleship and the bees as a swarm of helicopters (Heroic Emblems 1977, p.37). Stephen Bann’s commentary on the emblem (printed on the same page) may well suggest further subtleties, indeterminacies, and authorial intentions (yes, those too!), but nothing will persuade me that anyone is a competent reader who does not recognise the biblical topos to which this emblem alludes. And a reader who has never encountered the motto to Finlay’s emblem of the tank that beats for landmines with its whirling flails in front (‘Semper festina lente’, 1977, p.3) is missing something essential, and not at all arbitrary to its meaning. Or there is the ‘Cominus et Eminus’ motto to the emblem that shows a fighter-plane ditched in the sea (and the epigram names Icarus, p.17). Subreading is fundamental to the emblem, it is pervasive, and the relevant allusions are not purely arbitrary. Moreover some (sub-)readings are just plain wrong… And the fact that the major manufacturer of refined sugar in the UK (Tate & Lyle Ltd.) has used the honey lion, with its biblical motto, on its syrup tins for the last fifty years or more suggests that emblematic subreading need not be the dedicated preserve of ancient scholars. Advertising uses emblems; popular culture delights in subreading (‘Discuss’!)

Some of these arguments for the continuing relevance of emblems to modern advertising and commercial logos, which essentially support Szönyi’s overall case for the continuing relevance of emblem studies, have been pursued by Peter Daly in sources to which he refers - to which one might add the plenary lecture Daly read to the 1999 Munich conference on emblem studies, ‘The Nachleben of the Emblem: Emblematic Structures in Modern Advertising and Propaganda’ (printed in Harms, W and Peil, Multivalency and Multifunctionality of the Emblem, Frankfurt a. Main: Peter Lang, 2002, pp.47-69). What Daly’s examples suggest is the continuing efficacy of emblematic forms as a medium of communication in modern contexts – advertisers do not pay good money for propaganda that doesn’t work. That efficacy, moreover, is not discontinuous with their historical functions in civic and courtly panegyric and propaganda. We are learning more about the emblem’s place in the rhetorical systems of its own day, where the Jesuits in particular made the invention of emblems a key part of their students’ training in rhetoric and poetics (see J. Manning and Van Vaeck, The Jesuits and the Emblem Tradition, Turnhout: Brepols, 1999; or K. Porteman, Emblematic Exhibitions at the Brussels Jesuit College, Brepols 1996, with some stunning colour plates). In the current state of literary theory post-Structuralism (or should it be poststructuralism?) we are unlikely to find much consensus on precisely which contemporary theory it is that makes emblems most relevant, but some of the positions which might signal the relevant directions which Szönyi’s paper has opened up for us are developed in the various contributions to Amy Wygant’s recent New Directions in Emblem Studies (Glasgow: Glasgow Emblem Studies 1999), in which the essay by Rüdiger Campe, ‘Questions of Emblematic Evidence’ offers an illuminating account of the debates on German baroque drama in which the influential arguments of Albrecht Schöne on the emblem had their origins, as Szönyi points out. Those applications of the emblem to early-modern theatre are relevant to the illuminating account he himself offers us of recent emblematic approaches to Shakespearian and Elizabethan drama. Let the debate continue, and www is now the place to do it, as emblem writers would have been the first to recognise, wedded as they were to their own most advanced (or was it most conservative?) media of communication.

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
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