Portrait, Lyric, Code: Reading the Face Before and After Laura Riding Jackson’s Body’s Head

By | 1 June 2022


What does she hear with ears we’ve never seen? Political revolution. Feuding monarchies. Raging fire and war. Today she hears cameras and audio tours. Internet speak, the insufferable drone. Little cups. Hiding under a chestnut sea. What can she detect with those ears behind two sheets of bullet-proof triple-laminated glass, each almost thirty centimetres apart? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Be my Mona Lisa. Listen to my wants and needs. Do the materialists believe that her ears are actually there? Improbable. Girl without pearl earrings. Obscene. Where, in the end, is the ‘acted-upon ear, the unusually large ear, and the theologically preinterpreted ear’ of Italian art?1 Her curves, furrows and concavities remain concealed. She has no need to hear that which the eyes have already seen. L’Être et le Néant. To speak of a thing, is to speak of a thing which exists. The ear, estranged. The ear, engaged. We never talk about her ears, though. They’re rarely mentioned. Messo a tacere. There is more to life than the auditory. ‘Of all the exposed parts of the human figure,’ Berenson wrote, ‘the ears are least capable of a sudden change of character.’2 Some parts of her body’s head are not for public display.

Misers for my sake only,
My cups of avarice
Held out to catch the rains of sound,
Hurrying the swollen rivers
Over the bedded corrugation of their bowls
Into the quiet inland sea
Where I sit watching the waters rise
And the shore creep back to me—3

‘DALL·E 2 is a research project which we currently do not make available in our API. As part of our effort to develop and deploy AI responsibly, we are studying DALL·E’s limitations and capabilities with a select group of users.’4

  1. Matthew Shoaf. Monumental Sounds: Art and Listening before Dante. Brill (2021), 84.
  2. Bernard Berenson. Lorenzo Lotto. Phaidon Press (1956), xv-xvi.
  3. Jackson, ‘Mouth.’ Poetry (1925), 65.
  4. DALL·E 2 OpenAI, online.
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