Day 65: He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances

OK. I’ve written this one fast, because I want ideas, preferably before tomorrow morning at 9am. Please excuse typos.

It’s week 2 of my graduate seminar on fictional worlds. This week we’re reading Sidney’s Defence of Poetry, Books 2, 3, and 7 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Chapter 1 of Auerbach’s Mimesis. My idea was that we’d think about representations of world-making in all three—from Sidney’s conception of poetry as the creation of a “golden world” to Raphael’s narration to Adam, in Paradise Lost, of God’s creation of this world, to Auerbach’s articulation of two paradigmatic techniques of representing reality: that associated with the Homeric style, in which all events are “in the foreground,” and that associated with the Old Testament, in which certain parts “are brought into high relief,” while others are left obscure, suggestive of an “unexpressed ‘background’ quality” (Mimesis, 23).

Auerbach’s terms for characterizing these two styles—specifically his use of the terms foreground and background—reminded me of Franco Moretti’s characterization of the novel as a genre: in novels, he writes, we find a “generalized awakening of the everyday,” in which “the background is conquering the foreground” (“Serious Century,” 378, in The Novel, Vol. I).

As you are well aware by now, the duck-rabbit is an ambiguous figure. And so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the duck-rabbit takes a special interest in representations in which the relationship between background and foreground is ambiguous; Rubin’s vase is the most famous example.

Given that this particular duck-rabbit, the one writing this dispatch, is also, for its sins, a scholar of literature, it also takes a special interest in the application of this visual language to literary texts.

When did this happen, wondered the duck-rabbit? When do the terms “background” and “foreground” start being applied regularly to literary texts?

Well, the short answer is that I have no idea because I got completely waylaid while investigating the words “background” and “foreground” this afternoon while I was meant to be reading Sidney’s Defence. The terms “background” and “foreground” are both products of the Restoration, a cursory OED search informed me. But which came first, the background or the foreground? That might sound like a completely ridiculous question, akin to which came first, the chicken or the egg? The duck or the rabbit? Except that foreground / background does not correspond to duck / rabbit (or to rabbit / duck for that matter), because duck and rabbit are both foreground.

If the question “which came first, the background or the foreground?” were put to an artist, (or, let’s say, to a seventeenth-century painter of landscapes), it would be a perfectly reasonable question, albeit perhaps, in most cases, one with an obvious answer: the background comes first, the sky, that is, because that is the order in which one conventionally paints. [1]

Interestingly enough, when I asked the OED which came first, the background or the foreground, I got the same answer: the earliest example cited in the OED for “background” precedes the earliest example given for the term “foreground” by more than twenty years.

Think about that for a moment.

Doesn’t that seem, just, wrong? Doesn’t it seem that background and foreground ought to have come on the scene simultaneously, like Castor and Pollux, duck and rabbit, a mutually defining double-act from the beginning? I mean, what was the background the background to for the first twenty years? If it wasn’t the background to the foreground, wasn’t it just the ground?

Sure enough, the OED defines background with reference to the foreground, as “the ground or surface lying at the back of or behind the chief objects of contemplation, which occupy the foreground.” Foreground, by contrast, is not defined in relation to background: “that part of a view which is in front and nearest the observer.” Interesting. So does that mean that you can have a foreground without a background but not vice versa?

I think that the answer might be “yes” but I also think that the asymmetry between the two terms may derive from the different media from which they emerge. (Again, this is just conjecture based on glancing at the OED this afternoon; I haven’t actually researched this.) The OED says that the term “background” comes from the theater, whereas “foreground” comes from the graphic arts. So the first usage they supply of “background” is in a stage direction from Wycherley’s Love in a Wood, whereas the first example supplied of the use of “foreground” is from Dryden’s translation of Du Fresnoy’s treatise on the art of painting.

This seems important although I’m not sure that I know quite how. Perhaps it’s that theater doesn’t need the term “foreground”—because that’s covered by the term “stage” and can be described as such (help me out here, theatre-history people; I don’t think the terms downstage and upstage come along till later, right?)—but the theatre does have a use for the term background, which might refer to the scenery at the back of the stage.

Representational painting, though, requires both terms.

Everything I’ve written so far has been a preamble to my main point or question, which is this: does it make sense to apply these terms to literature? My interest in this seminar (and in my current research) is in the conceptualization of fiction as a “world” and as immersive and participatory in the same way that a “world” might be. So, you can enter a world and move around in it. The background-foreground distinction makes sense if you’re conceiving of the literary work as a two-dimensional picture; but if you’re conceiving of it as a world, those terms seem less apposite.

What terms are better? I dunno. Eric Hayot makes some suggestions in Literary Worlds, proposing that we analyze narratives according to the following variables: “amplitude, completeness, metadiegetic structure, connectedness, character-system, and dynamism” (83). “Amplitude” is the category that covers the perspectival differences indicated when critics talk about “foreground” and “background” in literary works. The difference is that, for Hayot, amplitude is both spatial and temporal: it can refer to “the distribution of aesthetic attention and information” within a certain diegetic space, but it can also refer to same distribution with a certain diegetic temporality. Essentially, amplitude describes what the narrative attends to and what the narrative neglects; but that might just as well be conceived temporally (or socially; or affectively; or psychologically; or epistemologically) as well as spatially (59).



[1] I’m talking out of my arse here. I know nothing about late-seventeenth century painting conventions. I’m just assuming that they painted the background first because that was what I was taught to do in the 1980s. And it just makes sense to do it in that order, she declares, boldly.


One thought on “Day 65: He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances

  1. Perhaps this, from To the Lighthouse, is a good example of the background becoming the foreground?

    The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

    [Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

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