LIKE A SNAKE BITING ITS OWN TAIL, this book ends where it began. My return to the circular dance suggests continuity over time: I have attempted to show how visual imagery and an aural imaginary intersect in recurring patterns across four centuries of Atlantic visual culture. A sense of closure is a desirable thing at the conclusion of a historical study. Achieving it requires a perspectival distance that allows us to look out on the past and discern its contours, and it is not accidental that this distant view has been a persistent motif in this study, one that I have tied to landscape representation in particular. It is the view of Henri II surveying an artificial Brazilian forest along the Seine from his royal scaffolding, of Frans Post at his telescopic distance from the sounds of conflict in Dutch Brazil, and of Alois Riegl atop his alpine perch, lost in the reflective, historicist mood of modernity. Defining stable patterns amidst the turmoil of Atlantic history necessitates such a lofty viewing point. But another persistent motif throughout the preceding chapters has been the noise that disrupts our Stimmung. The sounds of the dance, like Riegl’s chamois, draw us through the makeshift hole in the wall, through the peephole of the kinetoscope, and into the sensory excess of the near view. My return, full circle, to the sounds of the dance is therefore more than the buckling of beginning and end; it is their unbuckling as well. We are left, like Franklin, situated between the quiet of the study and the violence of the thunder outside the window.
Any gesture toward closure needs to accommodate this ambivalence, and not only as it applies to the interplay between art and aurality in the past. The soundings essayed in this book have been those of an art historian interested in the power of the voice in his own profession, a power seldom remarked on, but not to be underestimated. It will come as no surprise to readers of this book that all of its chapters had their beginnings in lectures or spoken papers, as I stood before a group of colleagues or students and searched for suitable words to describe pictures that are unable to speak for themselves. The oral presentation is such a routine stage in the path toward scholarly publication that it hardly seems worth mentioning on the printed page. But, in important respects, humanists of the modern academy still resemble those orators like Caspar Barlaeus for whom intellectual inquiry was synonymous with the art of rhetorical persuasion. We still find it necessary to test our ideas through the spoken word, as we attempt to give substance to the ethereal image on the screen by announcing our thoughts in the presence of others. There is a strange logic to using our voices in this manner. We try to convince auditors that the objects about which we speak belong to the past, even as our voices conjure those very objects back from the dead so they might speak to us in the here and now. We are always sounding historical distance, seeking the words that can simultaneously open and abolish it. This is not an entirely rational enterprise. It is, however, a fascinating imaginative space to inhabit. My goal in Sound, Image, Silence has been to occupy art history’s aural imagination, an in-between space where the meanings of pictures have not yet arrived, and where the possibility of alternative arrivals is not yet foreclosed.