A somewhat rambling post, on failed metaphors, the woodcuts of Dürer, and the Mann-James spectrum

It all started over at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Its estimable writer, Tom, found himself somewhat unimpressed by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and, as I had rather liked the novel when I had read it some fifteen or so years ago, I felt I had to say a few words in its defence. But it is not easy to engage in discussion fn a novel one had last read so many years previously with someone who has read it only recently; and so, instead of engaging on specific points, I decided to make a broad-brush argument.

Oh dear, there I go again, introducing unwarranted imagery drawn from the world of visual arts: it should be a primary rule of writing that one should never draw a metaphor or a simile from an area one knows little about. And, not being by any stretch of the imagination an expert on the visual arts, I should never have claimed, as I did on Tom’s blog, that Buddenbrooks was drawn in firm, clear lines; and neither should I have drawn a parallel with the woodcuts of Dürer.

You may see for yourself how the conversation went. I ended up claiming after a while that woodcuts did not allow for shading, and that its effect had to come from the correctness of line. But Dürer’s woodcuts do have shading, Tom responded, citing as evidence the famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht  Dürer

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer

This was hard to argue against: there certainly was tonal variation in there. And yet, surely a woodcut is restricted only to black and to white, and to no shade in between. I brought down from my shelves a book containing reproductions of Dürer’s woodcuts, and yes, there was an extraordinary variety of tone throughout: while each of the lines was placed to absolute perfection, the effect did not depend on these lines alone. So I found myself looking closely at these areas that appeared to be shaded. The shading was not a consequence of applying shades of grey: black and white were indeed the only tones available. The apparent shades are achieved by the closeness of the lines, and by various types of cross-hatching.

Is this what I had meant when I had brought Dürer into the discussion? It’s hard to say. The human mind is adept at justifying itself in retrospect, and convincing itself that it had intended what, at the time, it hadn’t.

And I did what I should have done earlier – contacted a good friend of mine who just happened, rather conveniently, to be an art historian specialising in the Northern Renaissance. She confirmed to me that the woodcut is restricted to black and white only, but, when apprised of the background to my question, felt that there was indeed shading in Dürer’s woodcuts. Not through different shades that may be obtained through varying the pressure on the brush or on the pencil, but through varying the closeness of the lines, and their thickness. And so on: there were virtually an infinite number of tricks up the old boy’s sleeve. It depends on how one defines “shading”.

Well – that’s an easy get-out clause for me, isn’t it? “It’s a question of how you define it.” No – I decided not to go for that one. I’d stick to my guns: the tonal variation only looks like shading, I insisted, but it can’t really be called shading since there is no shade other than black and white; what tonal variation we see comes from an immensely skillful manipulation of the black and the white, rather than from any actual shading as such.

And that’s what I had meant in the first place. No, really. That’s what I had meant, and no mistake.

And I was hoping Tom wouldn’t ask “If that’s what you’d meant, then why didn’t you say so?”

Fortunately for me, he preferred to talk about literature rather than about art. The depiction with firm clear lines was something he attributed to Flaubert rather than to Mann, although he did agree with me that the smudging together of tones and doing away with anything resembling outlines are best exemplified by Henry James, especially in his later works. Nothing in these works is clear. The vague, ambiguous states of our mind shade with the finest subtlety from one tone into another, barely aware of the passage, and refusing resolutely ever to be pinned down or defined. It can be maddening for the reader, and yet no other author has captured with such painstaking delicacy the infinite fluidity of human consciousness.

So, although my comments on Dürer may have been ill conceived, I wondered if I could be on to something here: could it be reasonable to speak of a Mann-James spectrum? Of clarity and precision at one end of the scale, and of endless smudging and obfuscation on the other?

Sadly, as soon as one starts to consider where on this spectrum various other writers may stand – Austen, say, or Hardy, or Joyce – the metaphor breaks down rather quickly. I suppose it is in the very nature of similes and of metaphors to break down beyond a point, since if X were to be precisely like Y in all respects, then X would equal Y, and not be a mere representation of it. But this metaphor breaks down a bit too quickly to be of much critical use. But while the spectrum between the poles remains unclear, I don’t know that I’d wish to jettison my initial conceit (in all senses, perhaps, of that word): for there is a firmness and clarity of line in Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, rightly or wrongly, recalls to my mind Dürer, who in a single precisely drawn line could express more than most artists could in an entire canvas painted with oils; and there is in James’ The Golden Bowl the subtlest and most delicate of shading from one microtone to another, with never a hint of a containing outline. I find myself unable to go much further beyond this, but at least the whole exercise has made me return to the woodcuts of Dürer with a renewed wonder and awe. And that can’t be a bad thing.

So here, to finish with, is Dürer’s woodcut Melancolia. And yes, however he achieved it, however one defines it, there is shading in here. It’s a miracle booth of technique, and of artistic vision.

[Ps Please note, Melancolia is an engraving, and not a woodcut, as I was careless enough to have stated above. Please see comments below.]

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Vic on July 27, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    I hate to take anything away from this blog post…but the Melencolia is in fact an engraving rather than a woodcut, and therefore uses a different technique. (The Four Horsemen is indeed a woodcut.) It’s much easier to get tonal gradations in an engraving – which is not to say that this is not a miraculous print all the same!


  2. Posted by ombhurbhuva on July 27, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Yeats too was inspired by line:

    We dreamed that a great painter had been born
    To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn,
    To that stern colour and that delicate line
    That are our secret discipline
    Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.
    Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
    And yet he had the intensity
    To have published all to be a world’s delight.
    (from In Memory of Major Robert Gregory)


    • Hello, and thank you for that. I do not currently have my books with me, so I had to look that poem up on the net. Yeats is a very favourite poet of mine: I did try writing on this blog about some of his works, but didn’t, I’m afraid, make a particularly good job of it. I really should tackle poetry more frequently on this blog.

      I love the passion in Yeats’ verse. In comparison, Eliot does seem a bit if a cold fish, to be honest. Just read those opening lines of “The Tower”, for instance: they seem to be burning with intense passion. I love the way Yeats’ poems seem so effortlessly to straddle Romanticism and Modernism, two movements that are often perceived to be in conflict with each other.

      All the best or now,


  3. I enjoyed reading your ramblings. You hit upon some of my favorite books and artists.

    It has been years since I’ve read Buddenbrooks as well, but I remember thoroughly enjoying it. I had read all of Mann’s short stories and wanted to see how he did with novels. I found that time period (the rise of the merchant class in Baroque Germany) very interesting, and I’ve always thought about the cellist with blue circles under her eyes because I’m also a musician who tends to have circles under her eyes.

    Then you talked about Durer one of my favorite artists. I don’t care two wits about shading although I think the technique your friend was discussing about creating an illusion of shading through proximity of the lines fascinating. I, too, have a book on Durer. I’m going to have to get it off the shelf and look at his woodcuts again.

    Incidentally, I got to see one of my favorite watercolors by Durer this summer when I visited the Louvre. It’s the mountain that has the face of an old man. I was surprised how small it was. Not much bigger than the print in my book.

    Finally, I appreciate what you said about Henry James. It’s a very fine way of describing his works, which I like. It seems to be the trend currently to make mocking sneers at his writing. Your description shows that some people simply don’t understand why you read James. He ‘s not trying to state fact but write in a way that’s perceptual. “Maybe this is what is going on, maybe it isn’t”, but at the same time he keeps you going and his writing is so eloquent.

    One more thought: I think it doesn’t matter what metaphors you use as long as you’re being understood. People need to focus on the message someone has and not interrupt the flow of their thoughts by being persnickety.

    Well! I’ve rambled quite a bit myself. Take care!


    • Hello Sharon, my art historian friend had briefly started a blog on the art of the German Renaissance, but I believe it’s currently on hold as she is busy setting up an independent bookshop. But the posts on there are well worth a look, especially if you are a fan of Dürer.

      Sadly, it isn’t just Henry James who s at the receiving end of mocking sneers. Do a google search on just about any writer of note, and you will find mocking sneers from those who think the writer has failed them, and who do not have the humility even to consider the possibility that maybe it’s the reader who has failed the writer.

      Metaphors are useful because they clarify one’s point, and if the metaphor is badly chosen, it obfuscates rather than clarifies. I do agree with Tom in this respect that persnicketiness is called for here: our reactions to works of art are often vaguely defined and amorphous, but if we do not attempt at least for some degree of precision in our criticism, then we’d end up communicating very little at all: indeed, we’d end up merely gushing. In book-blog-land, we have the opportunity of challenging each other to greater degrees of precision, and I think this is to be welcomed rather than otherwise. Often, in being challenged, we understand better not only the work, but our own reactions to the work. How we speak about works of art is a fascinating topic in itself, and the more I read what purports to be “reviews” in Amazon or on Goodreads, the more important I think this topic is.

      I’d best go now … I’m currently on holiday in Toulouse, and I have an afternoon of sightseeing ahead of me. It’s a hard life, but it has to be done… 🙂

      All the best for now,


      • I’ll concede being persnickety about metaphors, although I still think the listener should listen with grace and not be overly legalistic. As the speaker, I agree we should do our utmost to say precisely what we mean and not simply shoot from the hip (or mouth).
        I look forward to looking up your friends blog.
        Oh, and for the mockers of good writers: I believe it takes a certain level of intelligence to recognize it in others. (Hope that doesn’t sound arrogant.)
        Have a wonderful time in Toulouse. I just got back from Europe. I spent a couples in Paris. Just magical!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed Buddenbrooks, too, and do not know where Himadri got the idea that I didn’t.

    Mann himself encourages the use of non-literary explanation, since he claims that much of his technique was derived from Wagner. I myself use metaphors or examples from the visual arts all the time. Often some concept or other is clearer in visual than in literary arts – more precisely defined, or more often employed by art historians.

    I have a theory, Himadri, that you were thinking of the simpler lines of medieval woodcuts, rarely if ever shaded, and then Dürer was pulled in by association.

    Persnicketiness is the essence of criticism. Persnicketiness about metaphors is the essence of literary criticism.


    • I thoroughly enjoyed Buddenbrooks too, and did not know where Himadri got the idea that I didn’t.

      Ah! – yet another misreading on my part!

      Looking back on our exchange, I found myself frankly rather amused by the knots I had tied myself into, and my unwillingness to stop digging even when I found myself in a hole. (How about that for a mixed metaphor?) And it seemed to me that this could provide the basis of an amusing post.

      I agree we often need to borrow imagery from other branches of the arts. But choosing the right image is very often an art in itself! Possibly, as you suggest, I was thinking of medieval woodcuts. I was certainly thinking of works where firm, clear lines are the sole means of expression, and that seems still an apt image for Mann’s narrative art. The image doesn’t extend very far, though!

      Anyway, I am currently on holiday in southern France right now, and am typing this into my iPad over a coffee and croissant. I’d best get back now to the sightseeing. It’s a tough life…

      All the best for now,


  5. Far be it for me to nitpick, but I just have to point out this fun typo near the end of this post: “It’s a miracle booth of technique.” Indeed! P.S. Very much enjoy your blog.


    • Hello, and welcome to the blog. And please – nitpick away by all means! I am a terrible typist, and an even worse proof-reader, although on this occasion, the error, quite serendipitously (if that’s nota proper word, it is now!) has turned out to be a fortunate one!

      All the best,


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