28 January 2010

MCT: Wolfgang Iser

Iser is introduced as one of the best-known exponents of reception theory (Rezeption-aesthetik), which may be related to reader response theory. According to the introduction it's a less theoretical development of post-structuralism. According to me it's a rip-off of the ideas I expressed a while ago. But Iser wrote it in 1972.

The essay is called "The reading process: a phenomenological approach" and although it includes quite a few big words, some of them in German, it reads pretty easily.

The introductory section of the essay quotes Sterne's joke that in Tristram Shandy he has kindly left a lot of work to the reader's imagination. Iser says that all literature does that. It's not a new observation; even Virginia Woolf saw it at work in Jane Austen. But the Virginia Woolf quotation is somehow unsatisfying. In the remaining sections, Iser goes into more detail of how the reader's imagination interacts with the text.

Part II of the essay talks of how the reader works through the text, building and modifying beliefs and expectations. He uses one of those long German terms intentionale Satzkorrelate (coined by Ingarden), which literally means 'intentional sentence correlatives', a translation it was hardly worth making. What's striking about this section is the element of chronology: the reading develops in time; it's essentially seen as a linear process. So this may be more applicable to the novel than to lyric verse for example. Iser talks about how the text has to maintain the balance between variety and implausibility. He discusses 'blockages' - twists that force the reader to change their reading, sometimes radically. Modern texts can have so many such blockages that this can be difficult.

In the short Part III Iser talks of visualisation, without really getting into detail. The point is that readers form images of what characters look like, even if not explicitly. It's an example of the input made by readers.

Part IV goes into more detail of how a text can be (in Culler's terms) recuperated. In general terms it's similar to the earlier discussion of vraisemblance: partly by reference to social codes, etc, the reader constructs a coherent and valid view of the text.
Without the formation of illusions, the unfamiliar world of the text would remain unfamiliar; through the illusions, the experience offered by the text becomes accessible to us, for it is only the illusion, on it different levels of consistency, that makes the experience 'readable'.
(It's interesting there that 'readable' is more or less equivalent to Barthes' 'scriptible'.)

Part V begins with useful thoughts that reading changes the reader. It approaches a recommendation of reading precisely because of that effect. I'm less impressed by the turn it then takes. Quoting from Poulet he first notes that the ideas created in a reader's mind are not the reader's ideas, so whose are they? The author's. But apparently Poulet says that for this to happen:
the life story of the author must be shut out of the work, and the individual disposition of the reader must be shut out of the act of reading. Only then can the thoughts of the author take place subjectively in the reader, who thinks what he is not.
Iser doesn't entirely buy this (and neither do I) but says there are points that "should be developed along somewhat different lines".

I feel uneasy in that I find so much to agree with in this essay. It's an introduction of course, and the detailed explanation of the theory may be more difficult to follow or agree with. It may also cover the gap I think there is here in that it doesn't deal with non-linear reading. (Actually, I realise that Stanley Fish's reading of Milton is largely based on a linear reading. It has limitations.)

I suppose the other main concern with the approach as laid out in this essay is that it's so anti-theoretical. The danger is that an absence of theory may hide an unquestioned ideology. I'm sure that attack has been made by others and I'll encounter it at some time.

25 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics (6 - suite et fin)

Part 3 of the book, "Perspectives", consists of two short chapters.

The first deals with the objections that the "Tel Quel" school might raise. I remember Tel Quel. It seems to have faded away but in Culler's description it seems basically to be be post-structuralism. Derrida and Kristeva are mentioned, and the assumed attack is made on the basis that Culler's theory of literary competence can only be valid if there is one privileged reading, whereas Derrida has shown that there is an infinite play of readings. Culler's reply seems to be that in practice, some readings are evidently better than others. He also amusingly deals with Saussure's theory of anagrams. He believed that Latin poets regularly hid proper names in their texts by way of anagrams. Kristeva appears to have given this notion serious thought.

The second and final chapter is by way of summing up. Culler stresses again that his project is for an analysis of how readers create their reading, but that the poetics must not be based on linguistics.

My final comments: I remain doubtful that it is possible or sensible to develop a full structuralist poetics. Structuralism itself seems badly damaged by the post-structuralist attacks, which have, however, not provided an alternative. But the attempt is valuable. It's interesting that despite all the reservations Culler expresses, Barthes is really the hero of the book. As Susan Sontag realised, his literary competence was unrivalled.

Structuralist Poetics (5)

Chapter 9, the longest in the book, is "Poetics of the Novel". As Culler says, structuralists have given more attention to novels than to poetry, in particular to the nouveau roman, which has forced a challenge to traditional ways of reading.

Inevitably, S/Z features strongly in the opening remarks. Culler goes on, in the section headed "Narrative contracts" to look at ways in which readers try to naturalise or recuperate the role of the narrator. Part of reading a traditional novel consists in constructing a narrator, and this is equally true whether there is an explicitly postulated narrator (eg in first person narrations) or not (eg in Balzac). He suggests that Benveniste's view of histoire and discours doesn't entirely match the situation, and that things are only complicated by Barthes inclusion (and perversion) of this idea. He looks at what happens when it's difficult to construct a narrator: who do readers then naturalise the novel? He rejects the idea of limited point of view as an explanation; within and among the individual points of view, there is a selection process taking place. In extreme cases, where it is impossible to construct a coherent narrator, we can assume the narrator is deranged in some way; but do we really gain anything from doing so? Closing remark in this section: "The identification of narrators is an important interpretive strategy, but it cannot itself take one very far".

The next section, "Codes", essentially focuses on Barthes' five codes in S/Z, which Culler finds inadequate. In particular, he says that there is inadequate attention to any narrative code, so he moves on to study of plot structure.

In the section simply headed "Plot", Culler looks at various attempts to develop a theory of plot construction. It's clearly very difficult, and there are twin dangers of being over-reductive (reducing all stories to a small number of plots) and over-descriptive (when you're halfway to retelling the story). Vladimir Propp comes out of the discussion pretty well. In his analysis of folk-tales Propp identified certain key functions rather than actions. So running is an action, but running away is part of a function, which might be described as flight, in which the means of flight is in plot terms irrelevant.

Using Barthes, Culler shows that the reader's construction of a plot is provisional and deferred: we don't know what function an action embodies until later, possibly not until the end of the text. In fact, Culler's argument is that understanding of how plots work must focus on the reader's experience. He doesn't argue, but I will, that this means anything with a plot is likely to scriptible; it would be a very dull story that explained the significance of every action.

This is a good section, although a lot of it is spent in discussing and refuting theories of plot. The next one is headed "Theme and symbol". This is about the way a story expresses a wider, deeper, more basic, more generalised meaning. (I'm using lots of adjectives because they are all problematic.) The main suggestion is that the symbolic meaning is expressed by means of contrasts and oppositions. Back with S/Z, there's the contrast between the heat of the salon and the cold of the garden. The discussion is fine as far as it goes but it's hard to resolve: how do we know when we've found the right level of meaning. (If we conclude from Sarrasine that it's more pleasant to be warm than to be cold, we've gone too far.) And why do we apparently need to find a thematic meaning anyway? (Personally I'm less inclined this way than many readers. It's possibly a slightly autistic trait. Asked what a novel's "about", I'm more likely to talk about the plot and the characters, rather than thematic concerns.)

And the section ends with two classes of work that escape these considerations: allegory, where there is probably one true reading of the theme, and works like Finnegans Wake, which seem to deny the possibility of carrying this kind of meaning.

The last section of this chapter is on "Character", which has been underexamined by structuralists, who have doubts about the concept itself. The introductory comments suggest that the concept of character in pre-20th century novels (many of which are still being written!) doesn't work with pre-novel works or with the nouveau roman. The major part of the discussion is about how people in novels relate to underlying roles - as in Propp again. Without coming to any conclusion, the idea is that readers naturalise fiction by assigning pre-defined roles to the characters. The discussion seems to recognise its own inadquacy, and the chapter (at last!) ends with an acceptance that structuralism "does not offer a full-fledged model of a literary system". I'm beginning to think that it never will, and I think that may be what Culler thinks to. Ostensibly he's suggesting that other theorists can develop such a model, but ...

Pedro Salinas

Here's a nice way to start the week. Spanish Byki tweeted me a link to this poem.

Posesión de tu nombre,
sola que tú permites,
felicidad, alma sin cuerpo.
Dentro de mí te llevo
porque digo tu nombre,
felicidad, dentro del pecho.
«Ven»: y tú llegas quedo;
«vete»: y rápida huyes.
Tu presencia y tu ausencia
sombra son una de otra,
sombras me dan y quitan.
(¡Y mis brazos abiertos!)
Pero tu cuerpo nunca,
pero tus labios nunca,
felicidad, alma sin cuerpo, sombra pura.

That's really lovely, I think. It's by Pedro Salinas, dated 1923. I realise I know very little Spanish poetry, and I haven't even heard of Salinas. Here's his wikipedia entry, having read which I still don't know much about him.

This poem is clearly modernist, however, and uses, like Pessoa sometimes does, a slackness of word order that's much more achievable in a Latin-like language. Here's a fairly literal translation.
Possession of your name
only this you allow
happiness, soul without body.
Inside me I hold you
because I say your name,
happiness, within the heart.
"Come": and you come I stay;
"go": and you rapid flee.
Your presence and your absence
shadow are one of the other,
shadows they give me and leave.
(And my arms outstretched!)
But your body never,
but your lips never,
happiness, soul without body, pure shadow.

More by Salinas here.

22 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics (4)

To make a start, then, on chapter 8, "Poetics of the Lyric". I think this is a difficult chapter, not because the ideas are hard to understand, but, as I've suggested earlier, they don't seem to me to add up to a thought-out poetics, and certainly not a structuralist one.

What I would have expected, in outline, is something that classifies the formal, rhetorical effects used in poetry, and assigns them each a function in creating an effect in the reader's understanding. But even as I type that, it sounds pretty dreadful, if not impossible. Maybe the point is that the aim is unachievable: poetry can't be understood as a semantic superstructure. Throughout the chapter, Culler refers to 'traditional' critics such as Cleanth Brooks and William Empson, and to classical rhetorical theory and terms.

The chapter starts with a dodgy bit of translation. Taking from Genette a piece of journalism set out as if poetry, Culler shows that presentation as a poem alters the way we approach it (there's a quotation from Robert Graves to the same effect).

(The bad translation? The journalism refers to an accident on the 'Nationale 7', which becomes the A7. I know, I know, I shouldn't let things like this bother me.)

Culler then identifies three features of poetry: 'distance and deixis', 'organic wholes' and 'theme and epiphany'

I had to look up deixis. In poetry it brings a lack of immediate explanation of what is going on. I particularly enjoyed finding out about deictic articles. The example is from Yeats:
A sudden blow; the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, the thighs caressed
By the dark webs ...
It's in the nature of poetry to have that suspension of understanding. And here comes John Ashbery!
They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
'This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.'
Here 'they' is a deictic pronoun (we don't know who they are), and I suppose you could call the quotation marks deictic too (we don't know who's talking).

'Organic wholes' heads the section that says we expect totality or coherence in the lyric. A fairly simple, but unresolved issue, in that fragments (real or pretend) may make us "assume a totality and then to make sense of gaps".

The third 'convention or expectation governing the lyric' is 'theme and epiphany'. Again, the brief discussion suggests that this may be achieved in various ways.

The final part of the chapter is headed 'Resistance and recuperation', and looks at the techniques reader can use to overcome Wallace Stevens' observation that "The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully". So, recuperation here is similar in meaning to vraisemblance - but here it's likely to involve playing with various metaphorical understandings to achieve a meaning that is coherent with itself and the poem. This is where Empson makes a significant appearance.

In the end, this chapter is not a poetics of the lyric; it's a sketch of the factors such a poetic would have to take into account.
It indicates what problems require further work if we are to reach an understanding of the conventions of poetry. (p 188)

21 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics (3)

So, on to Chapter 7, "Convention and Naturalization", which may be the most useful of the lot. Mainly the chapter is about vraisemblance, which is the term Culler settles on out of a number of choices. It refers to the way in which literary texts convince the reader of their reality. Here's the core:
One might distinguish five levels of vraisemblance, five ways in which a text may be brought into contact with and defined in relation to another text which helps to make it intelligible. First there is the socially given text, that which is taken as the 'real world'. Second, but in some cases difficult to distinguish from the first, is a general cultural text: shared knowledge which would be recognized by participants as part of culture and hence subject to correction or modification but which none the less serves as a kind of 'nature'. Third, there are the texts or conventions of a genre, a specifically literary and artificial vraisemblance. Fourth comes what might be called the natural attitude to the artificial, where the text explicitly cites and exposes vraisemblance of the third kind so as to reinforce its own authority. And finally, there is the complex vraisemblance of specific intertextualities, where one work takes another as its basis or point of departure and must be assimilated in relation to it. At each level there are ways in which the artifice of forms is motivated or justified by being given a meaning. (p 140)
Phew! That was a lot of typing, but it seems to me its the most explicit statement of the underlying approach (we'll see in a moment what happens when Culler tries to develop a poetics of the lyric). Let's look at each level in turn, as Culler does.

1. The first level is simply that the text has an apparent reality. So this is statements of fact: John sat at the table. In fact, Culler distances this a bit, saying that the text refers to the generally socially defined text. I'm not entirely happy about using the word 'text' so widely. There's also room for debate about whether any grammatical sentence has vraisemblance simply by virtue of being grammatical. The example here is the sentence 'John cut off his thought and fastened it to his tibia'. Because it's grammatically well-formed, it has a relation to socially accepted statements, but in a different way, surely, from one that is both well-formed and meaningful.

2. Cultural vraisemblance operates on the level of shared beliefs about people and things. Balzac is quoted a lot here. I suppose his notation of Nucingen's speech is an example; Balzac's audience shared the view that's how Germans speak. It's a huge concern in S/Z of course, and one of my concerns about that essay was that Barthes assumed agreement by his readers on several cultural beliefs - eg the Freudian view of castration.

3. The use of a particular genre enables the third level. Actually, the concept is wider than simply genre, and includes, for example, works by the same writer. An example here is the behaviour of Corneille's characters. They would never say "I'm fed up with all these problems and shall go and be a silversmith in a provincial town." (p145)

I'll add a thought here, that cultural vraisemblance can become genre-based. In Jane Austen's time, it was a culturally shared fact that Anne Elliot, for example, would not decide to get a job and support herself. Now, most readers accept it as one of the conventions of the genre, without having to understand the social constraints. (And here 'genre' might mean 'novels of Jane Austen', or 'early nineteenth century fiction' etc.)

4. The 'conventionally natural' is interesting, and I'm not sure how common. It occurs when the work foregrounds its own artificiality to gain authenticity. Examples are needed and given, but sticking with Jane Austen, in Northanger Abbey this kind of thing is going on all the time, with Austen pointing out how unlike a gothic novel her story is.

5. Culler simplifies this to 'Parody and irony', which might be an over-simplification. He also says it may be seen as "a local and specialized variant of the fourth [level]" (p152). In fact he develops the discussion so that irony, for example, can apply to any of the previous levels. In the discussion of Madame Bovary the point is made that Emma Bovary's thoughts and actions are ironised relentlessly. The discussion also argues that in irony you have to be able to hold both views in mind at the same time. I'll quote the example, in Culler's own translation:
[Emma] wanted to become a saint. She bought rosaries; she wore amulets; she wanted to have in her room, at the head of her bed, a reliquary set in emeralds, in order to kiss it every evening. (p 156)
You have to be able to sympathise with Emma's wish, while understand the ridiculous in it.

The chapter ends with a kind of apology, that this concentration on vraisemblance (also known as 'motivation', 'naturalization', 'recuperation' and maybe more) isn't popular with structuralists. Indeed, as Culler sets it out, it doesn't seem structural in the same way that theories of language are. In the next chapter, "Poetics of the Lyric", my initial view was that there actually isn't a structuralist poetics defined or described. But I'll read it again before I comment here.

18 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics (2)

After rebutting Jakobson's attempt to encompass poetics in linguistics, Culler moves on, in chapter 4, to "Greimas and Structural Semantics". Greimas, whose work I don't know at all, apparently tried to account for poetic effects by the organisation of semantic elements within a work. The difficulty in this seems to me to be very much the same as in computer translation: semantic units aren't as neatly fixed as would be necessary to make this possible. One example is the word "colourful", which means something quite different when applied to a painting and to a person. Even if you add a note to your dictionary that gives a different meaning in different semantic contexts (eg colourful: when describing a painting, bright, using many colours; when describing a person, lively, eccentric) you still can't account for all usages. (What if we said, for example, that "The Mona Lisa has a colourful background"?) The situation is worse in literary language, where metaphors continually develop.

Also, in jokes for example, the same semantic features are repeated but with different meanings, so how can we know what element is important?

The chapter ends with this thought:
linguistic analysis [...] does not in itself serve as a method of literary analysis. The reason is simply that both author and reader bring to the text more than a knowledge of language, and this additional experience - expectations about the forms of literary organization, implicit models of literary structures, practice in forming and testing hypotheses about literary works - is what guides one in the the perception and construction of relevant patterns. (p 95)

Chapter 5, "Linguistic Metaphors in Criticism", is the last of the part of the book dealing with the background. In it, Culler looks at two other approaches. The first, typified by Barthes' Sur Racine takes a set of works and attempts to identify a structuralist code of meaning. In Racine, this means that there is, for example, a contrast between three spatial areas: the chamber, the anti-chamber, and the world outside. I found Sur Racine a fantastically useful work in appreciating Racine, but Culler argues that it falls short of actually getting to grips with the plays themselves. His argument isn't wholly spelled out; I think he also recognises the brilliance of the book.

The second approach takes the "work itself as the investigation of a semiological system and attempts to formulate more explicitly the insights it provides" (p 103 - 4). Barthes is again an example: his work on Loyola is concerned with showing Loyola as explaining the semiology of devotion. Similarly, Deleuze and Genette read Proust as a kind of dictionary of social intercourse. A refinement of the second approach is to see works as a commentary on language itself, and Stephen Heath's work of Finnegans Wake is the example.

Culler ends this chapter similarly to the previous one:
Linguistics does not [...] provide a method for the interpretation of literary works. (p109)

In Chapter 6, "Literary Competence", Culler begins the reply, proposing a theory of poetics, which while structural in form is concerned with literary effects. This first chapter says that accomplished readers of literary texts bring to their reader a skill in identifying literary structures and patterns. At its simplest, this would include knowing that Blake's Sunflower is not just about a flower in a garden in Lambeth. Going on, the competence would include an awareness that it's significant that three lines out of eight begin with the word "Where". This must imply that there are some kind of poetic signifiers, and I presume the rest of the book will deal with this. What's already clear, though, is that the method focuses on the reader: readers have more scope than writers to examine the implicit side of what they are doing; and the aim of the endeavour of this book is to bring some of those implicit activities into the foreground.

15 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics

Another book I picked up years ago, Jonathan Culler's Structuralist Poetics, published in 1975 is still apparently worth reading. It's a bit of a snapshot I suppose, but from what I've read so far it does a decent job of summarising some of the theories and criticising them quite assertively. So I'll write it up here as I go through it, which means I have a bit of catching up to do.

The first chapter, "The Linguistic Foundation", is about the development of structuralism in linguistics, referencing Saussure of course, and the others who developed the system of signs. Culler is quite clear that structuralism and semiotics are the same thing. I don't think I've seen that identification made so baldly. He makes more reference to Chomsky than is usual. I think the point is to stress that linguistics and poetics (in a wide sense) aren't coterminous: there is an overlap but each activity has its own area of speciality.

This leads to the second chapter, "The Development of a Method: Two Examples", which looks in turn at Barthes' Systeme de la Mode and Lévi-Strauss's Mythologiques as attempts to apply a linguistic model to the understand of fashion any mythology respectively.

In Systeme de la Mode Barthes analyses a year's fashion press, trying to create from the captions of photos the code of what different types of clothes signify. For Culler, the big weakness is that the analysis is synchronic - ie it is based on only one year's fashion, whereas fashion is inherently diachronic; you can't ignore the difference between this year and previous years, which largely defines fashion.

With Levi-Strauss there's a different problem. He sought to identify certain features in world mythology that crop up across different cultures, but which have the same meaning. But the analysis doesn't have anything of the exactness of language.
The discussion of 'sun' and 'moon' is a case in point. Lévi-Strauss sees this opposition as a powerful mythological operator with great semantic potential: 'so long as it remains an opposition, the contrast between the sun and the moon can signify almost anything'.
So it is necessary to know something more than the structure to understand the myths. The chapter concludes that both these attempts have failed, but asks if literature might be more amenable to linguistic-based analysis, and so we move on to Roman "Jakobson's Poetic Analyses".

When I wrote about Jakobson earlier, I had doubts. Culler takes these further (showing why he's a professor and I'm not). He closely examines Jakobson's analysis of one of Baudelaire's "Spleen" poems. Jakobson tried to demonstrate the structure of the poem by looking for particular linguistic features, and showing that they formed a symmetry around the central stanza. Culler argues that by choosing different linguistic features you can show entirely different structures. It seems to me a complete demolition, not only of this analysis of this poem, but of this method of analysis entirely. The choice of linguistic features is arbitrary, with Jakobson's choice having no greater inherent worth than anyone else's. This seems close to Derrida's attack on Levi-Strauss: because the structuralist analysis doesn't have - can't have - a "centre" where the structure and the object of analysis coincide, any assumed starting point is as good as any other.

That might be the end of the book. Of course it isn't, and Culler suggests that Jakobson was looking for the wrong thing. Linguistic analysis precisely does not tell us what sentences mean - we already know that.
If one assumes that linguistics provides a method for the discovery of poetic patterns, then one is likely to blind oneself to the ways in which grammatical patterns actually operate in poetic texts, for the simple reason that poems contain, by virtue of the fact that they are read as poems, structures other than the grammatical, and the resulting interplay may give the grammatical structures a function which is not at all what the linguist expected. (p 73)

More to come.

13 January 2010


I've got a copy of John Ashbery's Selected Prose for my birthday - thanks, Marion - which had been on my wishlist for a while. Ashbery, as I've written before, fascinates me; his poetry seems to me to require a new way of reading, and maybe his writing about others will elucidate it.

Sadly not, on the basis of the few pieces I've read so far. His criticism is warm and heart-felt, but unspecific. There's little examination of how his favoured poets achieve their effects.

His taste is very good (by which I mean it coincides with mine in many respects), and there are essays here on Jacques Rivette, Michel Butor and lots of other writers I really don't know. But I want to take as an example his writing about Marianne Moore in a review from 1967 of her Complete Poems.

He adores her work: "I am tempted simply to call her our greatest modern poet". Why? He begins by stating that there is a purported message of restraint underlying the work, and wondering whether restraint has ever been a characteristic of memorable poetry. But he shrinks back from recognising ambiguity in a curious, and curiously long-winded, hesitation:
Without, however, suggesting that there is in Miss Moore's work a strain counter to the sentiments she seems to be expressing here (and of course, we should not assume that they are hers merely because she uses the form of direct address), that the swarming details, each one crystal clear, often add up not merely to complexity but to a "darkness" which gives contours to her "truth" - without going this far, one can still note that all here is not so modest, cheerful and brightly lit as the lines I have quoted seem to imply.
There's a strange contamination there of presumed authorial intention, which leads Ashbery halfway to criticising Moore for losing control of what she's trying to express. This seems to be why he won't completely acknowledge the complexity of meaning, while to me that kind of complexity is exactly what makes the poetry interesting.

He goes on:
When we explore any of the poems that comprise the Moore canon [...] we are brought up against a mastery which defies attempts to analyze it, an intelligence which plays just beyond our reach.
Which is really not good enough. But Ashbery is a better poet than he is a critic, and he notes that "though Marianne Moore's mind moves in a straight line, it does so over a terrain that is far from level". That's a sharp image, and unsurprisingly it yielded the title of the review, "Straight Lines over Rough Terrain".

I'm sure the general argument of the article is correct: Moore's work gains its strength from the contrast between the strict forms she uses and the richness of allusion she employs (Ashbery refers to her translations of La Fontaine - works I don't know - where there's an additional formal restriction). But he doesn't look at how that happens. Surprising, perhaps, that a poet should not look more closely into the detailed craft of another.

The concluding paragraph begins "In short, one can never be sure precisely what she is up to" and the review doesn't really go beyond an account of Ashbery's reasons for liking the poems so much, which is based at the level of meaning rather than method.

In Ashbery's preface to the collection he quite wittily says that the Poets on Poetry series in which this collection was first published
is aimed at readers who like poetry, want to learn more about the poets in question, and think that prose is usually easier to understand than poetry. Mary McCarthy once complimented me on my art criticism and was about to add something like, "Why can't your poetry be like that?" but stopped herself at the last minute.
We could analyse infinitely the play of vanity and self-deprecation in that quotation, but let's just note how it dodges the question of whether poetry and prose are "understood" in different ways. Ashbery's own poetry refuses to be understood in any simple sense; but he doesn't seem to apply that paradigm to other writers' work.

08 January 2010

Lacan (2)

I've brought my copy of Écrits 1 down from my "library" (spare room), and my first happy discovery was a bookmark at page 112. Did I really read that far? Probably not, since that is the second page of an essay called "Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage", which is doubtless the first essay I would have tried to read. I used to be able to explain the difference between mot, parole, langue and langage.

Second discovery is that Lacan was let down by his translator. His French has a lightness about it that the translation (in MCT) doesn't attempt to capture. Here's an example.
Nous ne nous fierons quant a nous qu'aux seules prémisses, qui ont vu se confirmer leur prix de ce que le langage y a effectivement conquis dans l'expérience son statut d'objet scientifique.
As for us, we shall have faith only in those assumptions which have already proven their value by virtue of the fact that language through them has attained the status of an object of scientific investigation.
It's not easy in either language, of course. I suppose the translator has been at pains to be as literal as possible, but there's a slight difference between prix and value, and the connotations of conquis has disappeared. Expérience has gone completely, or maybe it's there in investigation. So you can't blame the clumsiness on literalness. Better to paraphrase, surely, than to translate like this.

I've also seen that the first essay in the collection is on Poe's story "The Purloined Letter". How the French seemed to have loved Poe! Barthes used another story of his as a mini-version of S/Z. I haven't read the essay yet, but have read the story. You can understand why it would appeal to (post)-structuralists: the form of the story is of three repetitions of a similar action. One of these actions is related as taking place before the story-time; the second takes place during the story-time (but again, before the narration begins), and the third is imagined in the story-time's future (no doubt it has happened by now!).

But there's an obvious danger in building a literary theory around one type of writing. I've been reading about the development of New Historicism, which came from renaissance studies. Although it later broadened its scope, who knows what kinds of adjustments and trimmings had to be made? Not me, not yet.

06 January 2010

MCT: Lacan (and how not to do it)

Somewhere in this house there is a copy of Écrits by Jacques Lacan - yes, in French. I must have been feeling ever so clever and optimistic to buy it and needless to say I've scarcely opened it. Lacan, like Derrida, is often considered to be the point at which French critical theory went bonkers. He was a Freudian psychotherapist, and applied some of Jakobson's thinking (on metaphor and metonymy) to the analysis of the unconscious.

The essay in MCT, "On the insistence of the letter in the unconscious", begins with a gentle refutation of Saussure's description of the relationship of the signifier to the signified. Reasonably, he says that meaning can't exist only in that relationship. It also lives in the surrounding signs (horizontally) and (vertically) in the alternatives that aren't used.

So at some point he says that symptoms are metaphors. I understand that bit, but not much else. It is, above all, an essay on psychology, on psychoanalytic theory, and although I've read loads of Freud in the past, this is very post-Freudian. (Lacan was kicked out by orthodox Freudians, although he clearly thinks he is preserving the true Freud in his writing.) Almost certainly what happened is that bits of his thinking were appropriated into criticism, and may have been misunderstood in the process. It's not just the background that makes it difficult: he writes in a discursive, sorry to say donnish, style, and the translation often seems clumsy (I've a feeling en effet is often translated as in fact or in effect, which are often false friends.)

And as for how not to do it? In the editor's introduction, the editor says "the present editor certainly does not claim fully to understand everything in this essay". That's comforting, but it's a contorted avoidance of a "split infinitive". But it's not as bad as the example from Dickens.

In Bleak House the guiding principle of the Circumlocution Office is to work out "how not to do it". In modern English most people would read this, on its own, as meaning "how to do it wrong". Dickens intended, and presumably his readers would have taken to mean "how to avoid doing it". Maybe we do need to have some idea of the author's intention, or maybe Steiner was right, and we need to be sure we know what contemporary readers would have understood.