Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (Natural History) contains a famous anecdote of a painting contest between the ancient Greek naturalist painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. In this tale, the two painters compete to see who can make the most life-like paintings, in a bid to represent reality. When Zeuxis removes the curtain from his painting of grapes it astonishes all the onlookers because the grapes look very real – so much so that birds fly down and try to peck at them. At this point it seems likely that Zeuxis will win the competition, but when he is asked to remove the curtain from Parrhasius’ painting it turns out that the curtain itself is painted on. Zeuxis’s painting may be convincing enough to fool the birds, but Parrhasius wins the contest because his painting of a curtain is able to fool a human being.

These two painters, then, were engaged in mimesis – the act of imitating nature – using pictorial art. Pictorial art relies on what we now know is an iconic range of signs, that is, signs that resemble what they are supposed to represent.

Our conundrum is that literature – which uses words – relies on a symbolic sign system. Such a sign system does not directly resemble its subject matter and can therefore represent ‘the real world’ only in an (even more) indirect manner. The question, then, is how something as unstable as language might be made to represent reality (or whatever you might wish for it to represent).

In Ancient Greece, mimesis, or showing, was contrasted with diegesis, or telling. The initial idea was that painting, sculpture and similar pictorial and plastic arts were designed to mimic the world in a visual manner, whereas the purpose of diegesis was to place events and people in axes of place and time and according to cause and effect. Eventually, however, it became clear that the pictorial arts were capable of telling stories whilst literature was equally capable of showing things, through language’s capacity for description.

Showing through Telling

Beginning with Homer, the Ancient Greeks were not opposed to providing detailed verbal descriptions of significant objects – usually highly wrought objects of art, such as urns and vases, or in a famous example, the shield of the legendary war hero Achilles. Such a rhetorical description is known as ekphrasis. The following is only a small portion of the description found in Homer’s Iliad (here in a translation by Samuel Butler). We join the story as the smith of the Gods (Vulcan in this translation) is making the shield:

First he shaped the shield so great and strong, adorning it all over and binding it round with a gleaming circuit in three layers; and the baldric was made of silver. He made the shield in five thicknesses, and with many a wonder did his cunning hand enrich it.

He wrought the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also at her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of heaven- the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain and which turns round ever in one place, facing. Orion, and alone never dips into the stream of Oceanus.

He wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them. (Book XVIII of the Iliad.)

As you can see, there is a strong element of diegesis here, in that there are tiny narratives about what is ‘taking place’ on the shield (‘they were going about the city with brides’ and ‘the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre’) – as if the reliefs on the shield were animated somehow. Also, Vulcan is performing actions here (‘First he shaped the shield,’ ‘He made the shield in five thicknesses,’ ‘He wrought,’ ‘He wrought also’), making the shield while at the same time presenting it to us. Nevertheless, the main purpose of this section is to describe to the reader what the shield looks like. It does so by telling us a story (moving through time) of what is a static object.

This example demonstrates that it is usually very difficult to distinguish between mimesis and diegesis (or showing and telling), as elements of both will usually be present at the same time. Exactly for this reason, the distinction quickly vanished, and mimesis and diegesis started to be seen as two aspects of the same art, or rather the same arts, because epic, lyric and drama all contained both showing and telling elements. We learn from the ekphrasis of the shield also that in order to describe visual elements to an audience, literature needs to go about this in its own way, using completely different tools from those available to a painter or a sculptor of statues.

This also tells us that what enables us to understand the semiotic signs of a piece of literature is the structure it builds through stringing many words together in sentences, according to certain patterns. We do not look at individual signs in a vacuum, but in a context imbued with some kind of purpose.

Language does not consist of random words jumbled together with no plan. Words tend to be chosen with some care and placed into sentences according to a pattern that makes them communicate something to us in a very specific manner. The next section therefore looks at word order, also known as syntax.

Next: Syntax