Birger Vanwesenbeeck

Word and Image in Tomasula’s The Book of Portraiture

Near the end of Steve Tomasula’s 2006 novel The Book of Portraiture, a chance encounter takes place in a local pharmacy story between an advertising model and the digital retoucher responsible for photo-shopping so many of her globally circulating images. While standing in front of a rack with condoms that all bear the model’s “doctored picture” as “the female half of a romantically perfect couple in a passionate embrace”, the photo retoucher asks the real-life model to autograph one of the condom boxes. It is a defining, or better still, high-definition, image for the paragone, the agonizing conflict between word and image, whose centuries-long tradition Tomasula’s novel meticulously traces and unpacks in 6 loosely connected chapters. Time and again in these historical face-offs, the desire of words and images to, respectively, carry out each other’s work (and thus outdo the other on its own terrain), or to wipe themselves clean of the other’s influence altogether, are exposed as illusory and doomed attempts to undo a dialectic of intermediality that, as my paper will show, is as deeply rooted historically as it is tenacious in the present.