In Gail Jones’ 2018 novel about the life and death of Noah Glass, his ‘vocation’ as an art historian begins when, as a small boy growing up in the remote north of Western Australia, he opens a book about the Great Art Museums of the World. It translates him miraculously from the Mars-orange landscape of the outback to the rarefied, Prussian-blue world of Piero della Francesca: it was a ‘window to elsewhere’ and ‘other worlds and times blazed as portents from the pages’. The significance of this moment is confirmed twenty years later when, as a student in London, Noah discovers Piero’s The Nativity (c. 1470-5) hanging in the National Gallery: ‘Noah walked around the National Gallery, taking meticulous notes, registering line by line his self-improvement’. These are instances of what Peter Wagner calls intermediality: the intertextual use of one medium, such as painting, in another medium, such as prose fiction.
What we have entered here is a mise-en-abyme of ekphrasis: the text and images of one book, and the description of a painting in a notebook, all contained within another book, call up a cascade of images for the reader of this novel about art. Its cover, in turn, carries a Photoshopped image of Piero’s The Dream of Constantine, a panel from the Arezzo frescos or The Story of the True Cross (c. 1466).
But there is nothing new in any of this. A similar mise-en-abyme of intermediality appears, for example, in Piero’s Girolamo Amadi Kneeling Before Saint Jerome (c. 1451), an oil painting in which the saint opens one of several books in front of his disciple, in this case the Holy Scriptures, as a source of commentary on an image of the crucified Christ, which the student ‘sees’, as it were, through a process of textual elucidation. A textual scholar and translator, Jerome is Noah’s ‘favourite’, and he owns a small icon of the saint behind which he conceals a coded message about the location of a stolen art work. We are reminded that art history itself is a fundamentally ekphrastic discipline in the sense that it seeks to master images by words: Noah Glass describes it as ‘the poncy, embarrassing business of writing about paintings’. These examples suggest that at the heart of The Death of Noah Glass lies what W.J.T. Mitchell calls the problematic of the image/text.
In a series of influential books, including Iconology (1986) and Picture Theory (1994), Tom Mitchell, who is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Department of Art at the University of Chicago – notice the cross-disciplinary affiliation – established the discipline of iconology as the study of images across the media, or images that move, as it were, between media. Picture theory is a form of ‘applied iconology’ concerned with the way pictures themselves are ‘self-analytical’ or ‘metapictures’, becoming forms of theorising in their own right, and not just inanimate objects that have to be explained by language. The Death of Noah Glass has similar qualities as a work of fiction that is concerned with the image-text dialectic, but in such a way that the novel form itself – its narrative structure, its characters and settings, its intermedial allusions and its complex temporality – becomes a device for actively staging such theorisations. ‘Novels’, as Jones puts it, ‘are machines for thinking as well as feeling’.
Mitchell’s formulation of the image/text problematic in Picture Theory was a response to the provocation of one of the classic documents in the late twentieth-century culture wars, the 1988 report of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Humanities in America, and especially the section on ‘Word and Image’, which attributes an alleged decline of ‘western civilization’ to the contemporary promotion of a culture of the image above the culture of the book. A novelist and Professor of Writing, Gail Jones has always been interested in the history of visuality: ‘I began as a painter’, she reminds us, ‘not as a literary person. So I’m very interested in the visual arts … [and] the history of cinema. In everything I’ve written, there are images and words in contention’. ‘Modernity’, the first short story in Jones’ first book, The House of Breathing (1992), is about the impact of early cinema on its first audiences. Among Jones’ earlier novels, the protagonist of Black Mirror (2002) is an Australian art historian researching the biography of a surrealist painter who flourished in Paris in the 1930s, while Sixty Lights (2004) is an example of neo-Victorian historical fiction that draws upon the history of nineteenth-century visual ephemera, photography and early cinema, and the rich modern tradition of writing about photography.
Citing Raymond Williams, Tom Mitchell denies that there is or has ever been an opposition between words and images, and that in both literary and visual media, words and images ‘“flow” into one another’. His largest claim in Picture Theory is that ‘the interaction of pictures and texts is constitutive of representation as such: all media are mixed media, and all representations are heterogeneous; there are no ‘purely’ visual or verbal arts’.
Yet the theorist in Mitchell is also impatient with the centuries-old humanistic traditions of ut pictura poesis and ‘the sister arts’, which too readily assume a principle of homology or equivalence between words and images that can be subsumed under such rubrics as ‘the timeless classics’ or a ‘period style’. He proposes instead a three-fold typography that registers ‘the whole ensemble of relations between media’, including ‘antagonism, dissonance and division’ as much as ‘similarity, resemblance and analogy’. While the term ‘imagetext’ designates ‘composite, synthetic works (or concepts) that combine image and text’, and ‘image-text’ with a hyphen designates the active field of relations between the visual and the verbal, the backslash in ‘image/text’ signifies a problematic gap, the cleavage or rupture in representation that is a potential site of play, difference and creative possibility: ‘the key thing … is not to foreclose the inquiry into the image/text problem with presuppositions that it is one kind of thing’. The point is not simply to compare or connect image and text as two separate systems of representation, but to develop ‘the concept of the medium (visual or verbal) as a heterogeneous field of representational practice’. The figure of the image/text is ‘a wedge to pry open the heterogeneity of media and of specific representations’.
The Death of Noah Glass is a virtuosic staging of this rich field or ‘problematic’. The idea of a productive gap or rupture in representation is repeatedly invoked by the novel’s explicit allusions to and staged, ekphrastic descriptions of paintings, films and other visual texts. These include quattrocento paintings, such as Piero’s The Baptism of Christ and the Arezzo frescos; ottocento sculpture, such as Vincenzo Ragusa’s Japanese Woman (c. 1881); the precious icons and cheap religious artefacts of Roman Catholic worship; the double helix of intermediality represented by the Italian giallo novels and film adaptations of the 1950s and 1960s; and the proliferating screen culture of the internet. As each of these media and genres re-crosses time and space, from the Renaissance to the contemporary era, from Italy to Australia and back via Japan, Jones demonstrates not a quaint equivalence between the sister arts, but an unruly dynamic of disjunction, rupture, play and appropriation that sets off a force field of narrative and semiotic energies.
This staging of the ‘hyphenation’ of words and images can be seen in the relation between Piero’s The Story of the True Cross and the cover of The Death of Noah Glass itself. What we ‘see’ is not Piero’s fresco, as if that were even possible. Instead, the cover is described very carefully as comprising ‘figures derived from Piero della Francesca’s The Dream of Constantine’. In her acknowledgements, Jones thanks the designer, Chong Weng Ho, for his ‘sympathetic artistry’. The phrase ‘derived from’ belies both the presence of the originary art work and its homology with the novel, signifying instead the ‘problematic’ of the image/text and its multiple sutures across time, space and format. It is in this hyphenated space, this zone of intermediality, that the complexity and ambiguity of Jones’ novel, her own ‘sympathetic artistry’, erupts.
In the broad conception of her novel, Jones exploits the ekphrastic relation between words and images to create multiple links between her plot and various traditions in the history of visual culture. The conventions of the heist genre provide an envelope for her plot in the same way that those of Cold War-era Hollywood monster movies, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), frame reflections on contemporary issues in Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film The Shape of Water.
The Death of Noah Glass opens with the discovery of Noah’s body floating in his swimming pool, an allusion to both high art – the sprawling historical narrative of Piero’s The Legend of the True Cross commences with the death of Noah – and mid twentieth-century popular culture: Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard (1950) opens with the corpse of Hollywood script writer Joe Gillis floating face-down in a swimming pool, and his voice over, ‘Let’s go back six months to where it all started’. After the funeral, Noah’s son Martin and daughter Evie are interviewed by the friendless Detective Frank Malone, who informs them that Italy’s Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Agency is investigating their father’s involvement in the theft of a stolen art work, a nineteenth-century sculpture by Vincenzo Ragusa.
The events in which Martin and Evie are subsequently caught up resemble the plot of a giallo novel or film. The word giallo is Italian for yellow, deriving from the yellow covers of Mondodori’s series of cheap paperback mystery novels, often translated from English-language American and British originals, which were then made into Italian films, such as Mario Bravo’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che speva troppo, 1963). In Jones’ novel, the giallo genre is a double helix of cross-cultural linguistic translation and intermedial adaptation that echoes Ragusa’s ottocento project of a hybridised Italo-Japanese style. ‘Noah’s concluded life’ is like a B-grade crime novel or film, ‘a story running backwards’ (16). The intermedial comparison is sustained by a pattern of references to giallo films and their Hollywood equivalents, including John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1971). Like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Martin Glass arrives in Palermo as a naïve ‘tourist’ who finds himself in the classic position of a good man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Entangled in a web of deceit while pursuing his inquiries into the alleged heist, he lodges with the ironically named Tommaso Salvo, who ultimately betrays him to the mafia: ‘Martin saw how outside the community he was, and how worthlessly foreign … All around was the spatter of threatening motorbikes and imminent danger’. With its deconsecrated, dilapidated churches and stinking laneways, Palermo is an epitome of contemporary Europe in ruins, a stage set of ‘remembered images from old movies’.
The ekphrastic relationship between the plot of Jones’ novel and the many art works and films to which it alludes is inscribed thematically in Evie Glass’ job as an assistant to the blind movie buff Benjamin, a former barrister suffering from retinitis pigmentosa. His interest in Derek Jarman’s films Caravaggio (1986) and Blue (1993) reiterates Jones’s own engagement with Renaissance imagery. Evie’s job is to provide a ‘descriptive audio’ to Benjamin’s movie viewing, which includes ‘action and thrillers’. Where Evie’s work is ekphrastic in ‘connecting sound and image’ in cinema, Noah’s as an art historian is to master images by words. His books, his ‘scholar’s library’, are his ‘word-and-image paraphernalia’. The point perhaps is that Evie’s work describing movies to the blind oddly resembles Jones’ use of words to describe the characters, settings and events of the novel inside which Evie’s own ‘narration’ to Benjamin is contained. This hall of mirrors is like M.C. Escher’s famous ‘metapicture’ of an artist’s hand drawing the artist’s hand. Jones’ exposure of her novel’s mechanism is like Hitchcock’s signature appearance in Marnie (1964), in which he ‘glances at the camera and disappears’. Benjamin sees this with his ‘unseeing eyes’, just as Saint Jerome’s pupil, Girolamo Amadi, ‘sees’ the image of Christ, or the mind’s eye of a contemporary novel reader ‘sees’ the events of Jones’ narrative.
Structurally, the spaces between novel’s plot and its high art and cinematic references are reflected in the alternation of the core chapters between Martin’s present visit to Sicily and his father’s in the past, and Martin’s engulfment by the toxic legacy of his father’s crime. Martin’s following in the footsteps of his father, and his interviews with the people who knew him in Palermo, including his colleague Antonio Dotti and his lover, the Caravaggio expert Dora Caselli, recalls the posthumous interviews in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), which also fail to penetrate the mystery of personal identity. In Palermo, in the square near the cathedral, Noah witnesses an Indian hawker bashed by a bus driver who is protecting another tourist. The eruption of public violence and Noah’s powerless witnessing of the event echoes the plot of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
When Noah is drawn into the heist by Dora Caselli and her uncle Vito, Vito’s plan for the theft is pitched to him like a film script, and its narrative has a classic ‘twist’ in the re-direction of the stolen statue from Tokyo to Sydney, and its mysterious disappearance. Vito acknowledges, ‘this will sound to you like the movies’. Noah and Martin are caught up in the same heist story but at different times, the rapidly alternating chapters making their experiences seem to be synchronous. Noah senses ‘that all his life was gathering in to this point, rucking in folds as though pulled up by a drawstring’. His trip to the temple of Diana at Cefalu with Dora, where the heist begins, is repeated in Martin’s later pilgrimage to Monte Pellegrino in the narrative present, where the violent climax of the vendetta plot takes place, an echo of the earlier bashing witnessed by Noah in Palermo. In the end, Evie and Martin return to their father’s theories about the cyclical temporality of Piero’s paintings, discussing The Legend of the True Cross as a kind of time machine, a ‘co-presence of the finite and the infinite’, ‘a piece of wood appearing and disappearing throughout history’ like the Ragusa bust.
This theory of ‘temporal folds’ is expressed in the novel in Noah Glass’ major contribution to art historical scholarship, his argument that Piero’s paintings exhibit a mastery not only of space but also of time:
Noah developed his ideas on Piero della Francesca and time. Piero was known for his mathematical mania in the development of perspective … Most scholars wrote on Piero and space. … But gazing at the familiar reproductions, Noah thought that the images might be more about the mystery of time. … the famous panels on The Legend of the True Cross declared the loops of time – repetition.
A case in point is Jones’ use throughout The Death of Noah Glass of a figure caught in the act of undressing, their clothes awkwardly enveloping the arms and head. The figure is introduced by Noah’s ekphrastic description of Piero’s The Baptism of Christ, whose serene and hieratic image of Christ is juxtaposed with the more realistic figure of a man undressing behind him in the middle distance. In ‘The Spiritual World of Piero’s Art’, the art historian and Roman Catholic priest Monsignor Timothy Verdon explains that this is a man disrobing in preparation for his own baptism, an image exemplifying the ideal of imitatio Christi.
Yet Jones’ interest in these folds in time is not about strict homologies, still less about timeless theological or aesthetic values that link the Italian Renaissance with twenty-first century Australia; it is instead about play, ambiguity and contemporary appropriation – about the usefulness of high art in negotiating everyday life. Jones uses the figure not as an index of timeless spirituality but as a way of evoking human vulnerability. Examples include Evie Glass as a child bathing in the sea at Glenelg, or as an adult undressing in her lover’s bedroom on the cusp of a new sexual relationship, ‘pulling her clinging dress over her head’; Noah’s removal of his shirt in a panic after experiencing public violence in Palermo, and the image of his lover, Dora Caselli, bathing in the sea at Mondello. As Derrida points out, even famous works of art like The Baptism of Christ are ‘already talkative, full of virtual discourses’:
The fact that a spatial work of art doesn’t speak can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, there is the idea of its absolute mutism, the idea that it is completely foreign or heterogeneous to words. … But on the other hand … we can always receive them, read them, or interpret them as potential discourse. That is to say, these silent works are in fact already talkative, full of virtual discourses.
In reading Jones’ novel, it is therefore salutary to recall that the figure of the image/text ‘is not a template to reduce … things to the same form, but a lever to pry them open’.
Folds in Time: The Legend of the True Cross
Martin’s pilgrimage to Monte Pellegrino, where he is beaten in revenge for his father’s theft of the statue, parallels Noah’s earlier pilgrimage to the Temple of Diana on Cefalu with Dora Caselli, when the heist is first conceived, and is an effect of the folding of time caused by the mechanism of the revenge plot. These are the patterns of everyday life that are inscribed in the formal properties of art works, like the flight paths of aeroplanes through space, ‘the calculated alignment, the inexorable route to a destination’; the ‘arc’ of the route.
A similar sense of ‘figures in geometry’, of crossings in time and space, is underwritten by novel’s principle intermedial relationship with Piero’s The Legend of the True Cross, which can be seen as a ‘machine’ for producing different spatial and temporal relations between the constitutive elements of its Biblical narrative:
Through the fug of hospital potions, [Martin] heard Evie speak of pleated matter and folds in the soul. He heard ‘multiplicity, not unity’; he heard ‘co-presence of the finite and the infinite’; he heard her say something about serial time giving way to curves and bending motions. He could understand nothing. Was it the medication? When she began speaking of the fresco sequence called The Legend of the True Cross, he had at least a few images to pin to her words. A piece of wood appearing and disappearing throughout history, and its afterlife in millions of icons around the world, substance remade as an image, continuing in time.
Commissioned for the Cappella Maggiore of San Francesco at Arezzo, The Legend of the True Cross was completed in 1466 and comprises a series of frescoes that trace the history of the cross from its origin as a tree in the Garden of Eden, through King Solomon’s disposal of the wood, to St Helena’s rediscovery of the Cross on Golgotha and its theft and return to Jerusalem in the seventh century. As we have seen, the cover of The Death of Noah Glass is derived from The Vision of Constantine, in which an angel holding the cross informs the sleeping Constantine that he will become the first Christian Emperor. Two aspects of the cycle are relevant to Jones’ meditation on the problematic of the image/text. The first is that Piero’s cycle is itself intermedial in being already a visual rendering of textual sources: the Bible, of course, but more immediately of Jacopo da Voragine, Bishop of Genoa’s thirteenth-century devotional tract, the Golden Legend. Art historian Jeryldene M. Wood explains that Piero’s ‘translation of Jacopo’s literary imagery into visual form presupposes a knowledge of this kaleidoscopic narrative’, which is not sequential but ‘meanders back and forth in time’, interspersing its principle characters and events. This ‘kaleidoscopic’ quality is enhanced by Piero’s ‘zigzag composition’. Piero’s departure from Biblical and historical chronology is facilitated not only by the devices of allegory and typology, but also by the trompe l’oeil architecture of the chapel:
The cast of characters in the paintings propels the story across the centuries, while the signifying objects – first the wood and then the Cross itself – communicate the timeless message of humanity’s redemption. Piero emphasizes these symbols throughout the cycle by foreshortening them, placing them diagonally across the pictorial surface, or situating them before penetrations into depths that break with the mostly horizontal arrangement of figures and spatial planes in his compositions. The division of the walls into three distinct registers by fictive architecture encourages a more or less vertical reading that follows the chronology of the legend; nevertheless, parallel themes … and corresponding visual motifs (repetition of color and consistent figure types) prompt typological comparisons between the facing scenes at each level of the chapel so that the allegorical components of the myth ultimately prevail over strict temporal sequence.
This is a remarkably suggestive passage for thinking about the structure and temporality, and the settings, colours and imagery of Jones’ novel. It points to the fundamental elements of narrative as a ‘machine’ for thinking and feeling, including the foundational distinction between plot and story, as well as the energising relations between image and story, and space and time that are fundamental to the image/text problematic.
Imposed upon an uneven architectural space, Piero’s Biblical chronology is both temporally disrupted and spatially displaced. As a ‘kaleidoscopic’ machine for generating stories, it resembles Michel Serres’ account of historical eras as ‘disparate aggregates’, and his metaphor of the temporal pleat or fold. In her 2004 novel Sixty Lights, Jones acknowledged Lynda Nead’s account of this theory of modern time in Victorian Babylon (2000). Serres argues that ‘historical eras themselves are always simultaneously an amalgam of the past, the contemporary and the future: “every historical era is likewise multi-temporal, simultaneously drawing from the obsolete and the futuristic. An object, a circumstance, is thus polychronic, multi-temporal, and reveals a time that is gathered together with multiple pleats”’. Pleated time is visualised by Serres’ metaphor of the handkerchief. Spread out and ironed, the handkerchief represents a metrical, geometric concept of time, in which distance and proximity are stable and clearly defined; but crumpled in the pocket, the handkerchief evokes a ‘topological’ concept of time, in which previously distant points ‘become close, or even superimposed’. Moreover, if the fabric is torn, previously adjacent points may be rendered distant and unrelated: ‘Our experience of time resembles the crumpled version of the handkerchief rather than the flat, ironed one’.
As Marilyn Aronberg Lavin’s analysis of ‘Piero the Storyteller’ reveals, the superimposition of Biblical chronology onto the uneven surfaces of the Arezzo interior produces pleats, folds and juxtapositions across linear space and time in Piero’s paintings, the ‘eternal’ presence of Christ being the principle example. Jones’ novel has a similar structure. Her characters are mobile in space and time, the circumstances of their lives apparently repeated like Biblical typology as the legacies of the fathers, Vincenzo, Joshua and Noah, reach out across the generations. The zigzag lives of Eleonora Ragusa and Noah Glass between Sicily and Japan, and Sicily and Australia are imprinted across the ‘parts’ and chapters into which Jones’ novel is formally divided, like the panels of the Arezzo frescoes or the mosaics of Palermo’s Monreale Cathedral.
Modern perspective as symbolic form
In formulating the problematic of the image/text, Tom Mitchell’s intention was that it be used neither as a method of purely formal description nor of reductively historical analysis, but both at once: it is, he suggests, ‘like an aperture or cleavage in representation, a place where history might slip through the cracks’. For all the formal and stylistic perfection for which she is now renowned as a novelist, Gail Jones’ interest in what she calls the ‘contention’ of words and images is also rigorously historical. Inevitably, the Mars-orange landscape of outback Western Australia, where Noah Glass has his formative encounter with European art, is just such a place where history slips through the cracks.
In his introduction to Studies in Iconology (1962), Irwin Panofsky famously describes the primal scene of the modern science of iconology by contrasting the acquired visual knowledge of modern Europeans with the ‘primitive’ visuality of Australian Aborigines. In our native, untutored inability to understand a painting, Panofsky suggests, ‘all of us are Australian bushmen’. Central to Panofsky’s understanding of modern visuality is the Renaissance invention of perspective, which is the subject of his 1924 essay, ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’. This model of vision and subjectivity remained the core narrative of art history, with the shift from the Renaissance, perspectival, or normative model of vision signalled by the arrival of artistic modernism in the 1870s and 1880s. This is to grasp Panofsky’s concept of perspective not as neutral or natural, but as ideological, a form of totalising world view inherited by the settler society into which Noah Glass is born in mid twentieth-century Australia, and from which he seeks to escape through the discipline of art history.
Noah’s own primal scene as an art historian also involves an encounter between European culture and the Australian Aborigines, and as such it is overdetermined by the traumatic legacy of settler colonial history in Australia. His father Joshua Glass was a mission doctor who ‘had given his life to the poor Aborigines of Western Australia. He brought them the light, when they were lost in leprous darkness’. Having grown up on a mission station surrounded by lepers and tormented by his dread of infection, Noah has a life-transforming experience when he discovers the book about European art. The foundational role of Renaissance perspective in the formation of the western subject is confirmed when Noah’s son Martin recognises the continuity between his daughter’s Barbie house, an artefact of contemporary mass consumer culture, and the architectural studies of idealised urban space, such as the ‘Views of an Ideal City’ once attributed to Piero della Francesca:
Martin bent his face to the level of the tiny house, and then lowered his whole body. He stayed like that, curled on the floor, looking into the Barbie rooms as one might seek a saint’s face in the galleried spaces of a quattrocento painting. There was a chessboard floor, and he thought of those early works that situated figures in geometry – Piero’s Flagellation.
If, as Panofsky suggests, the invention of perspective plays a constitutive role in the formation of the modern western subject, then Noah’s career allows him to put his originary proximity to Aboriginal Australia in perspective, as it were, potentially opening up a life-affirming distance between himself and the Australian outback in space and time. In London’s National Gallery in 1971, Noah understands that the Australia of his childhood is ‘more or less barbaric’, and he attempts to ‘refashion’ a ‘tainted’ self, his head full of ‘old-world imagery’. Confronted by the power of Piero’s canvass, ‘Noah walked around the National Gallery, taking meticulous notes, registering line by line his self-improvement, missing almost nothing’. In London and Cambridge, Noah and his future wife Katherine study European art and English literature, those two transformative projects for expatriate colonials in the mid twentieth century, but they are neither British nor European. Later, returned to Katherine’s home town of Adelaide, itself a transplanted European grid, Noah finds himself ‘stranded in the wrong air’.
But when Martin visits Sicily on a quest to discover the secret of his father’s life, these carefully constructed relations in time and space collapse, as the pre-modern aspects of contemporary European life re-emerge. During a pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine on Monte Pellegrino, which is embellished with devotional imagery that pre-dates Renaissance art, Martin is called out and identified as an ‘Australiano’, an echo of Panofsky’s encounter between the modern European and the primitive bushman, and then attacked by Sicilian peasants intent on kicking him to death in revenge for his father’s crime. Curled up for self-protection in another loop in time, Martin reverts to childhood, repeating his posture when inspecting the Barbie house. The attack constitutes a return of the repressed, a collapse of the modern European epistemology enshrined in the concept of Albertian space, with its implicit separation of subject and object. Jones is here interrogating the culturally specific assumptions embedded in art history about the primacy of (modern) European vision and civility; about the taken-for-granted models of visual culture and its history which are themselves embedded in and answerable to questions of politics and power from a postcolonial perspective.
Jones’ staging of the problematic of the image/text in The Death of Noah Glass is therefore deeply aware of its own production in a settler society with an ambivalent relation to both Indigenous and European cultures. The cleavage caused by the death of Noah Glass opens up this leakage of history into a narrative about his life in images. With its suggestive typological relation to Biblical narrative, the genesis of that life is located in the Australian desert, where Noah opens a book that inducts him into a life of art. But these are images from another culture, images that screen him, in a psychoanalytic sense, from exposure to the traumas of Australia’s settler culture, to the spectacle of Indigenous disadvantage, and Australia’s proximity to Asia, to which Joshua Glass’ experience as a prisoner of the Japanese bears witness.
With his ‘word-and-image paraphernalia’, Noah Glass becomes a mimic European, a master of its visual culture. But this is a rear-guard action against Australia’s own legacy as a settler society. European art in Australia is always already displaced in space and time. We might recall A.D. Hope’s infamous description of white Australia as ‘a vast parasite robber-state/ Where second-hand Europeans pullulate/ Timidly on the edge of alien shores’. All of Jones’ Australians are second-hand Europeans and damaged people: Joshua’s experience as a prisoner of the Japanese, Noah’s fear of infection from the Aborigines, Katherine’s illness and premature death, Martin’s heroine addiction, Evie’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, Benjamin’s blindness, Nina’s deafness. Irene Dunstan, Noah’s neighbour at Elizabeth Bay, fears contamination of the swimming pool by his dead body, and all his life Noah suffers from a nervous rash like the plaques symptomatic of contagion by leprosy. These are the marks of settler ‘shame’.
Ekphrasis and the other
Tom Mitchell defines the goal of ekphrastic hope as ‘the overcoming of otherness’. The qualities of otherness might, in formal or aesthetic terms, include such oppositions as word and image, or space and time, but these aesthetic properties are also embedded in larger social and political relations of otherness:
Insofar as art history is a verbal representation of visual representation, it is an elevation of ekphrasis to a disciplinary principle. Like the masses, the colonized, the powerless and voiceless everywhere, visual representation cannot represent itself; it must be represented by discourse.
As an art historian, Noah’s act of ekphrastic hope is to master Italy and its art as way of screening settler Australia’s proximity to Aboriginal Australia and Asia, and its dislocation in time and space from Europe. And yet, when Noah and Martin arrive in Italy, its visual and physical immediacy produces moments of ekphrastic fear, when the self would wish that the other not become manifest, where its manifestation as otherness – as random acts of violence or the rituals of religious superstition – threatens the disciplinary achievement of the self. ‘The ambivalence about ekphrasis’, Mitchell explains, ‘is grounded in our ambivalence about other people, regarded as subjects and objects in the field of verbal and visual representation. Ekphrasitic hope and fear express our anxieties about merging with others’. Mitchell’s example of this return of the repressed is the figure of the Medusa in Shelley’s poem ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery’: ‘Medusa is the perfect prototype for the image as dangerous female other who threatens to silence the poet’s voice and fixate his observing eye. Both the utopian desire of ekphrasis (that the beautiful image be present to the observer) and its counter desire or resistance (the fear of paralysis and muteness in the face of the powerful image) are expressed here’.
The Medusa in Jones’ novel is Vincenzo Ragusa’s sculpture Japanese Woman (1881), a portrait of his wife Eleonora, whose personal transformation is a chiastic or mirror image of Noah Glass’ act of colonial self-fashioning. Where Noah had deliberately ‘hauled himself to another country’ by becoming an art historian, Eleonora is ‘split between countries’ through her ‘transnational marriage’, and as the exotic subject of her European husband’s practice of representation. In the 1870s, Meiji Japan had sought to acquire the cultural legitimacy of Europe, bringing to Tokyo the young Sicilian sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa to introduce Italian artistic traditions to the Japanese. He there married a Japanese woman, Kiyohara Tama, who changed her name to Eleonora when she returned with Vincenzo to Palermo.
It is Vincenzo’s portrait of Eleonora that Noah helps Dora Caselli to steal for the Sicilian mafia. As the statue of a Japanese woman made by an Italian artist in the neoclassical style of the late ottocento, it is an epitome of the subaltern woman, or of woman as subaltern. But as a work of art mastered by the ekphrastic discipline of art history, Japanese Woman is also the Medusa that turns her gaze back onto the European self. Even the customs man at Narita airport testifies to its remarkable beauty, and when Noah Glass finally sees it, he is sapped of health and well-being. Noah returns to Sydney dazed and exhausted, deciding to hide the statue in a locker, a kind of psychological screening or encryption, its concealment protected by a code written on the back of his icon of St. Jerome, and meant for the eyes of his daughter Evie, who is destined never to see the statue. Noah’s paralysis before the object culminates in his death by a massive heart attack, which causes him to fall into his swimming pool.
‘Beauty’, Mitchell writes of the Medusa, ‘the very thing which aestheticians like Edmund Burke thought could be viewed from a safe position of superior strength, turns out to be itself a dangerous force’. And as postcolonial scholars like Sarah Suleri have shown, even Burke’s ekphrastic text on the sublime and the beautiful is embedded in the historically specific practice of colonial power through its relations to empire and colonialism, which it shares with Noah Glass’s relation to Indigenous Australia, Europe and the orient. In this sense the bust of Eleonora Ragusa plays a similar role in the novel to the eponymous fetishistic objects in films about the return of the postcolonial repressed, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944).
Noah and Martin Glass’ situation as settler Australians ‘pullulating timidly on the edge of alien shores’ personifies a legacy of postmodern, postcolonial displacement. At Narita airport, in the midst of a long-haul flight while smuggling the Ragusa bust from Sicily to Australia via Tokyo, Noah watches a Japanese woman dressed in a crimson kimono employed to promote sake. In another of those loops in time she becomes Eleonora returned from the nineteenth century to the present: ‘Eleonora Ragusa – Kiyohara Tama – had returned and was serving sake at Narita airport. She had punctured time, risen from the dead, and come to offer him a drink’. Noah’s thoughts move from the woman to a memory of his pregnant wife in her dressing gown, and then to Piero’s Madonna del Porto: ‘He stared at the Japanese woman, grasping the way images slide into and onto each other, the unpredictable metonymies of seeing, the unexpected association’. This ‘vortex of a blended modernity’ is the world that Jean-Francois Lyotard famously dubbed ‘the postmodern condition’.
But what power do classic images like Piero’s and Ragusa’s still have to challenge that world in the age of Skype and the internet? Ironically, Noah Glass shares his name with the American founder of Twitter (Carlson), and Jones describes Skype as ‘a machine for invigoration’, recalling her own definition of the novel as a machine for thinking and feeling. In the sake woman at Narita airport, Piero’s Madonna seems reduced to the commercial banality of global capitalism rather than providing it with an alternative context of value: she ‘continued her task, administering to barely awake men in transit. She moved with ceremonial slowness, disguising commerce as ritual’. This reduction of sacred ‘ritual’ to advertising is a textbook example of what Fredric Jameson calls ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’. Under the ubiquitous impact of market forces and market values, elements from the past no longer provide any challenge to our assumptions, and are effortlessly accommodated into the self-regulating system of mass consumer culture, their value entirely defined by their current market price. It is what Martin Glass perceives as a desacralized and dilapidated world. However, Jameson elsewhere acknowledges the energy that can still render a work of art – a painting, a sculpture, a musical composition or a novel – ‘modern’ in the sense of having a powerful impact upon us now no matter how archaic its form or content might seem. In A Singular Modernity, Jameson compares this meaning of the ‘modernity’ of the image or art work to an electrical charge: ‘to isolate this or that Renaissance painter as the sign of some first or nascent modernity is … always to awaken a feeling of intensity and energy that is greatly in excess of the attention we generally bring to interesting events or monuments in the past’. Bakhtin attributes a similar energy, a capacity to incite ‘rethinking’ and ‘revaluation’, to the ‘modernity’ of the novel: the ‘modernity of the novel is indestructible’; ‘thanks to the intentional potential embedded in them, such works have proved capable of uncovering in each era and against ever new dialogizing backgrounds ever new aspects of meaning; their semantic content literally continues to grow, to further create out of itself’.
For all her apparent engagement with postmodern culture, Gail Jones therefore seems committed to ‘art’ and to ‘the novel’ in Jameson’s and Bakhtin’s sense, to their power and energy, their ‘modernity’ or ‘contemporaneity’. Her willingness to explore the rupture of the image/text is perhaps explicable in terms of that release of creative energy. Yet her acknowledgement of the power of images across time is always underwritten, as we have seen, by an historically informed awareness of art’s location in the history of colonialism and its cultures.
I began with the moment of Noah’s vocation, his ekphrastic self-transformation through the power of art. Yet this is also an act of colonial mimicry by a ‘second-hand European’, and therefore of the appropriation and displacement of another culture. Its immediate purpose is to distance Noah from his childhood friend, the poignantly named Aboriginal boy Francis. Art’s shameful politics is revealed in Noah’s encounter with Sister Perpetua years later in Adelaide. Sister Perpetua was his teacher at the mission for lepers. It was she who had seated him next to Francis and ‘encouraged their friendship’. But it was also through her that he had found the art book that allowed him to change his life, translating himself by a sustained act of ekphrastic hope to another time and place. Noah’s account to his former teacher about the power of art is at once a tribute to the ‘modernity’ of the image and a confession of settler ‘shame’:
To Sister Perpetua … he described how the leper colony had deformed him. … Noah described the Nativity in the National Gallery. … here he was describing it to a nun. He was revealing that moment when, like a panicked saint, he’d come alive with inception and changed the direction of his life. He was speaking with passion of an image, and the timeless call of images. He might have had flames coming from his body, or a blaze of blood in his eyes. In this moment of disclosure, heart to heart with his past, he understood how art had made his loneliness endurable.
That is to say that Noah Glass’ life-transforming encounter with Piero della Francesca is achieved at the expense of the Aboriginal boy Francis, just as Eleonora Ragusa is created through the suppression of Kiyohara Tama.
M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
Caroline Baum, ‘Gail Jones: Novels are machines for thinking as well as feeling’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April, 2018.
Peter Brunette and David Wills, eds, Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Nicholas Carlson, ‘An Interview with Twitter’s Forgotten Founder, Noah Glass’, 14 April 2011, Tech Insider.
Philip Jacks, ‘The Renaissance Prospettiva: Perspectives of the Ideal City’, in The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, ed. Jeryldene M. Wood, 115-133.
Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essays on the Ontology of the Present (London and New York: Verso, 2002).
Gail Jones, The Death of Noah Glass (Melbourne: Text, 2018).
Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, ‘Piero the Storyteller: Tradition and Innovation in the ‘Legend of the True Cross’’, in Piero della Francesca, ed. Maetzke and Bertelli, 27-38.
Steve Dow, ‘Gail Jones and the Art of Words’, The Saturday Paper, 10 March 2018.
Anna Maria Maetzke and Carlo Bertelli, eds, Piero della Francesca, The Legend of the True Cross in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo (Milan: Skira: 2013).
W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994.
—Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986).
Linda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).
Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Timothy Verdon, ‘The Spiritual World of Piero’s Art’, in The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, ed. Jeryldene M. Wood, 30-50.
Peter Wagner, ed., Icons – Texts – Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2012).
Jeryldene M. Wood, ‘Piero’s Legend of the True Cross and the Friars of San Francesco’, in The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, ed. Jeryldene M. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 51-65.