by ninashiel

During the weekend I had the opportunity to play a boardgame called Dixit. ‘Boardgame’ is a bit of a misnomer – there was no actual board, but it serves to distinguish it from role playing, computer/video or traditional/collectable card games. There were, however, large solid cards with beautiful, often whimsical, sometimes subtly disturbing, images painted on them.

Each turn, each player got a certain number of cards. One player acted as ‘storyteller’ by choosing a card from their hand, without showing it to the other players, and, on placing it face down on the table, spoke a short phrase, word, quote, or similar, to represent the image on the card. Some examples from the game we played were ‘Generosity’, ‘You are very small’, ‘Cliches and platitudes’ and ‘Any science sufficiently advanced is indisguishable from magic’. Following this, the other players selected from their hands a card, which they thought matched the description, and put them face down on the table. The storyteller arranged the cards randomly on the table face up, and the other players tried to guess, without collaborating, which one was the original card. If everyone guessed the right card, or if nobody did, the storyteller got no points, but all the others did. For the storyteller, it was ideal if one or some of the other players guessed the right card, but not all.

It was a gorgeous, very interesting game. A very interesting thing to me was that I lost horribly, despite my work with word/image relationships. It was very difficult to come up with a phrase to represent the card that was not completely obvious, but that someone would get. Once I used a reference to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, hoping that another avid Sandman fan would get it, but he didn’t. The game became very difficult if you didn’t know the other players well, or hadn’t played the game with them before, and didn’t know what they would respond to, what references they would get and what sort of associations they would make.

It made me think about Webb’s book on Classical ekphrasis, and how the ancient rhetors appealed to the listeners’ experiences and memories – their entire metal schemata – in their creations of ekphrasis. The same psychological process was clearly at work here. I made a poor rhetor in relation to my audience, because I did not have enough experience to know how their mental processes worked specifically in relation to this game. In verbally representing the cards, we could not use pure description – ‘a man looks over a giant leaf, appearing surprised’ – because it would have defeated the point: no mental process would have been created, no complex, potentially emotional, experience would have arisen, and, in any case, no game points were to be gained from that. By resorting to references, associations and evocations, we played with the listeners’ mental and emotional triggers – effectively using an ekphrasis of sorts.

I started to think about how personal, and, if you like, intimate thing ekphrasis really is. I argue elsewhere that writers use ekphrasis to transmit emotions, but, at the same time, because of the dimension of personal associations and references, I suspect that such emotions never carry through perfectly. I wonder to what extent you could claim that it is the ekphrasis that fundamentally individualises the reading experience. Perhaps a description comes across to several people more or less the same way, but a fully developed ekphrasis taps into the unique psyche of each individual, and realises the poetic/narrative aspect of a text; creates the imaginative fiction, the story.

If I should ever teach a module on literature and the visual arts, I think that for the first class, I would have my students play this game. For the second part of the first class, we would discuss their experiences and seeing how word and image can work together.