An interchange about Miriam Melzar’s “Yves Bonnefoy’s Poetics of Obfuscation,” published in our previous issue.
Letter from Eugene K. Garber (January 31st):
“I got interested in Melzar’s account of Bonnefoy’s philosophy, as an antidote
to Theory relativism if not downright nihilism. So I was saddened when she had
to undercut the whole enterprise. I found her point of attack somehow oddly
indirect. Alleged misuse/misreading of texts does not automatically negate a
philosophical position. As I recall, Benjamin gets all kinds of stuff factually
wrong, but you hang onto his basic insights. But I am no Bonnefoy scholar, so
maybe she has it right.”
Reply from Miriam Melzar (February 20th).
“I agree with Eugene K. Garber about Walter Benjamin: we hang onto his basic, often luminous insights. My complaint against Bonnefoy’s misreadings, however, has little to do with Benjamin’s case. I am not charging the French poet, even though it wouldn’t be far-fetched, with always pulling the blankets to his side, as the French say. Bonnefoy is far down the long line of those who have used the story of chaste and raped Lucretia for their own purpose: Livy and the ancient Romans made it into a foundation myth of their Republic, Augustine used it as a contrast to the behavior of a Christian woman, finally the Florentine Coluccio Salutati and the Quattrocento humanists viewed it as a fit theme for declamationes or legal arguments, fully two centuries before Shakespeare and other Renaissance poets took it up. Let me try to clarify my point of attack against Bonnefoy’s procedure, as evidenced in his lecture on Shakespeare’s text and in many other lectures and writings of his, so that it will be seen that it is not, as Garber puts it, ‘somehow oddly indirect,’ but that it does go in a straight line to the heart of the matter.
“Bonnefoy’s intention in his Collège de France lecture was to recruit Shakespeare to his own poetic. His poetic is a struggle against the evil power of images (that is why Bonnefoy insists, against logic and common sense, that the painted image of Sinon was the immediate cause of Lucrece’s fall). And what is that evil power of images? According to the French poet, images cause us, ephemeral creatures, to try to escape the real world of finitude, decay and death, into a fictitious one that’s self-contained and eternal, thereby making us oblivious of the presence of the other, the other who’s as ephemeral as we are. The evil power of images makes us deaf to the reality and autonomy of other beings. It is, if I am allowed a risqué but obvious simile, like the effect glossy images have on the pornography addict: the wretched soul stops seeing his girlfriend or wife as an object of desire and esteem, precisely because she is too imperfect, too finite, not enough of a goddess. Images, and the imagistic powers of language are, according to Bonnefoy, the allies of self-love in its unfinished war against love. Now, I hope we can agree on the following point: to misread someone, whether Shakespeare, Borges, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, or Celan (to name five authors, among many, commented on by Bonnefoy), and to misread them not because of involuntary error, philological ignorance or wrong facts, but rather out of purposeful inattentiveness or partisanship (as I endeavored to show in the letter to which Garber responded), is to disregard the reality and autonomy of that someone who happened to be an author. Such misreadings, therefore, vitiate the very purpose of Bonnefoy’s professed poetic and ethic: the care and respect for the other as supreme values. Garber is right in general: ‘Misreading of texts does not automatically negate a philosophical position.’ But in this particular case, for this philosophical (or rather existential) position, I think it does.”
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