Making time visible

Andrzej Dabrówka

Making time visible

Existence as performance. Looking at poetry’s role in cognition we first have to acknowledge that rhetoric always guaranteed to artistic representations an important place in the pursuit and transmission of truth and knowledge. Among the art devices taught and interpreted by rhetoric courses, and applied in practices of medieval poetry and iconography — allegory and personification are most prolific and characteristic.

Among the contributions of rhetoric only recently its 5th canon, performance (pronunciatio or actio) is getting attention. The immediate connection with philosophy is the rhetorical management of time. Some rhetorical figures are in their effectiveness dependent on their performance, and performative impact on the audience belongs to most expected tasks of the rhetoricians. Figures dependent on performance are related to time more closely than other language forms. Here belong different tropes implying or introducing speaking persons or personifications (like prosopopoeia, sermocinatio, or chria (χρεία, Lat. also usus). The time-relatedness happens by way of activating existential context for the apperception of direct speech as compared to reading of fixed and thence „timeless” written messages – time being the most important factor for the understanding of behavior. Oral performance – regular in the Middle Ages – makes the existential impact of such figures only stronger. Works performed are to some extent automatically performative (audience is being influenced by performance). That’s why we have to admit to those works of art a specific ontological status: they have the pragmatic power of doing things with words (J.Austin). And they have this extreme power of being “more than mere words” only when performed = produced in space and time.


Reistic vs. processual ontology. It is one of the functions of art devices like personifications not only to make abstract entities as Philosophy or Justice visual, but to show the processual character of being (the real world consists not of things, but of processes). Adding a time dimension to the object ontology is not enough to get an ontology giving account to metaphysical difference of process ontology. The distance in objective time doesn’t express adequately the identity of the compared entities, as much as age difference doesn’t say much about identities of people of different age. Time is not another (fourth) analytical dimension of the space containing objects, but is a constitutive property of each “object” changing it into a process or a part of it; only this distributive way brings time into the realm of ontology.


Typological relations as time ordering. Rhetorical figures based on analogy (e.g. comparison or metaphor) are also dealing with time – by connecting objects or persons across time, as in the typological relation between the prefiguration (typos, figura) and its counterpart – the coin, the fulfillment, the „real thing”. The difference between allegory and typology was first elaborated by Erich Auerbach in his essay Figura (1944) – devoted to Dante’s Commedia and proving the typological, not allegorical character of its presented world. Another example of this technique is the well known Biblia pauperum, whose typological structure has an advanced heuristic power. The time factor enables ontological explanation of the difference between allegory and typology. The Old Testament pre-figurations exist to a lesser degree than their New Testament fulfillments or than we today do, but they do exist nevertheless. Each of them has a time of its own (distribution!). Their existence is being sustained in cultural memory, in the religious sphere ruled by the liturgical time of anamnesis covering big events (like Salvation) from their Beginning until the End.


Allegory. Time-relating of personifications (allegories), and actual interaction between characters of drama or narrative, contributed strongly to the image of medieval art as realm of allegory. The preference for this rhetorical figure was superficially interpreted as using the easy visual way of communication, but it is actually a mechanism of cognition, teaching about the form of existence of reality as necessarily embedded in time.

Drama or narrative with introduced persons, among others personified entities involved in human interaction facilitate the impact of the works on their audience. A writer is trying by “enargetic speech” to present an event as an eye-witness and wants his audience to experience this description as if they were witnesses, that’s why enargeia is called in Latin sub oculos subiectio (Quintilian Inst.Or. 9.2.40).

“Here the nature of ekphrasis points to the core of ‘enargetic rhetoric’: rather than simply describing something, for example a scene, the author tries to make it visible to the audience, so as to produce the same effect on the present audience as on the ‘original’ (e.g. the witnesses of an event), while, at the same time, conveying its (invisible) significance.” (Ingunn Lunde Rhetorical enargeia and linguistic pragmatics, “Journal of Historical Pragmatics” 2004: 54).

This rhetorical method of evidence explains the ways of representing Death in the death dance depictions (“enargetic rhetoric”) and the language of texts like the Colloquium cum morte with its Polish and other vernacular versions.

It begins with a typical Bildeinsatz or a “foundational image” (Carruthers 2000: 77), a short ekphrasis of the scene with the hero (Master Polycarpus) seeing Death described as follows:

  • imago terribilis et lamentabilis, cincta ad lumbos lintheo et omnes morbos creaturarum in vase ferreo portans in sinistro brachio et tota existens pallida et in manibus tenens falcastrum horribile (MS Praha, Universitni Knihovna cod XIV H 26 (2671), f. 193a-199a; Ed. Czesława Pirożyńska )


When I start to dance with my scythe,

I want to bite a thousand of them —

Conversation Of A Master With Death (translated by Michael Mikoś)

What is more important, the personification creates a being called Death, expressing the phenomenon of inevitable mortality of all life. After we “have met” a death figure in death dances, speaking to people, our perception of dying process and its circumstances is different. We have all a phantasm of death in our minds, without having got its experience in the normal sensory way. It brings us closer to the observed aspects of life, as the typological constructions brought us closer to the presented matters. We owe the “weak truth” achieved by devices as enargeia, or time-connected figures to their performative impact on the audience. Abstract and mental qualities and processes are made visible and their performed representations can be experienced as real, and coexisting with past and present events and processes interconnected by typology in the time of anamnesis. Real as in: real-time.

Informacje o Andrzej Dąbrówka

Tenured professor, Institute of Literary Research (Polish Academy of Sciences), Warsaw.
Ten wpis został opublikowany w kategorii medieval studies, research i oznaczony tagami , , , . Dodaj zakładkę do bezpośredniego odnośnika.

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  1. Polish version Czas widzialny, „Academia” 34 (Liczby), 2012: 38-39.

    Click to access 38-39_dabrowka.pdf


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