Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 



Yves Bonnefoy's Poetics of Obfuscation, by Miriam Melzar: a reply to "Arthur Rimbaud and Yves Bonnefoy. Two Poetics of the Imagination," by Ricardo Nirenberg (Offcourse Issue #24, Fall 2005.)

Mixing ethics and esthetics has always been badly viewed in America. Don't say that Mozart's music is better—not that you like it better, that it is better—than Britney Spears'. "Good" and "bad," you will be told, taken as absolute judgments apply only to actions which affect people and may hurt or benefit individuals. Cheating's bad, charity is good. If you reply that music, images, literature and buildings do affect people, that they may hurt or benefit us deeply, you will be pegged as weird—a Platonist, a Stalinist, or worse. Such a consensus is to be expected in a democratic society, it has often been observed, and with the democratization of the universities, it has become dominant there too. Today few professors of the Humanities will dare say in front of a class that Disney World is not as good as the basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. Who are we to say? And using what criteria?

Left at that, the situation would be untenable, for there'd be nothing to teach. Some theories are needed, abstruse if possible, fostering dizzily impressive terms, whereof the impossibility of telling which is better, Saint Peter or Disney World, may be deduced. That the American academy has got most of those theories from France is not surprising. The two nations have gone through their democratizing upheavals in tandem, from the late 18th century to the late 1960s, but when it comes to theorizing, the French have a practical advantage: they take "philo" at the lycée, while we take "driver ed" in high-school. And so it came to pass that those who, like me, were trained in a humanistic discipline in the nineties, tend to look upon Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and a few others as hallowed names. In other words, the products of esthetic expression, all texts, have been placed in a Democratic Republic of Letters where grim and low equality reigns—except for the politburo of theoreticians who live in their own Olympus, with special privileges and stores. The very notions of communication, or expression, we were told, are meaningless: Is there something inside you—thoughts, feelings, memories, vague intimations, you name it—that you intend to shape, push out and share? How naive, this "in" and this "out." Just as Natural Science has shown that there is no trace of a world-designer, beneficent or malevolent, Theory has shown that there is nothing "inside." Just as the universe has been shown to be but a vast combining and recombining of hydrogen and helium atoms, your vaunted art and literature, and all human discourse, is but a vast combining and recombining of signifiers, following their own impersonal laws. Signifying nothing, as who knows who used to say.

This poison came from France, but from France, too, came a sweet antidote. Yves Bonnefoy has taught in the United States—at Brandeis, Williams College, the State University of New York at Albany, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York among other places—but with nothing like the hoopla which used to attend the visits of Jacques Derrida. Bonnefoy's American lectures have not been mobbed, as they have been in his own country, at the Collège de France and at the Bibliothèque Nationale. The French, it seems, are sooner fed up with hopelessness than we are. Summaries of Bonnefoy's courses at the Collège de France have been published (October 1999) by Seuil, under the title, Lieux et destins de l'image, and the sub-title, "Un cours de poétique au Collège de France, 1981-1993." Open wide your mouths, first in disbelief, then perhaps to raise hosannas: here images and texts can be good or bad, and not merely in relation to each other, but more importantly, in that they can be beneficial or noxious to the soul, to life. Here ethics and esthetics depose their enmity and sign a pact of alliance offensive and defensive.

There is something for Bonnefoy beyond or before our labyrinthic games with signs; this is not a transcendent god, or heaven of Ideas; it is, rather, the most immanent. He calls it presence: our own and that of other people, other beings like trees, or stones, the earth; not, again, the immortal soul or essence of those beings, but their finitude, their material, mortal situation which makes them our semblables, in that they precariously hover, like us, between being and not-being. The condition of being semblables entails, somehow, a solidarity, a sympathy, a love, akin to what Paul called agápe, i.e. Christian charity, the best part of which (this must be kept in mind) is a total and faithful listening to the word of the Other. I cannot think of a more concise way of characterizing Bonnefoy's religion than this: it is Christianity bereft of all that's Greek or Jewish in it; it is simply Incarnation, if we understand that word with no transcendent remnant. Presence, I gather, is an experience before becoming a faith; faith however is needed to maintain ourselves in the opening provided by the experience, in the fullness of life that it grants. Art—good art—helps that faith, revealing to us, or reminding us of, Presence. Bonnefoy is fully aware of the objection: the elements of art—word, sound, line, color, image—are subject to the laws of the signifiers, and these laws reject, or seem to reject, Presence, much as the laws of Physics reject, or seem to reject, the existence of a world-designer (remember Laplace's proud answer to Napoleon, who asked about God's role in the Celestial Mechanics, "Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis"). It is up to the good artist, the artist-as-poet, then, to resist the imperiousness of these laws, the temptation, the seduction (le leurre) of the image for its own sake, "the bad image" of bad art, which insists on staying inside a world made solely of other images, sufficient unto itself. That is the poet's faith, his task, his moral duty.

I have tried to compress into one paragraph what I take to be Bonnefoy's faith. Now I will make some critical remarks. First, it is a faith: I mean, for most of us, creatures of the present time, it is not self-evident, nor the consequence of public, repeatable experiment and rational deduction. After ten years of training that I don't begrudge, even though it was enslavement to the grim wielders of Theory, I welcomed Bonnefoy's faith the way one welcomes sunshine after a bout of dreary weather. More: I wanted to do my best to acquire that faith, for in the absence of it or something like it, I feared my incipient profession as a critic would be estranged from my life as a woman. Secondly, a faith, more so that others modes of truth, must be shown by example, chiefly by personal example. The example of the teacher, as well as the example of those who are claimed as forerunners (for I doubt there has been ever any faith which professed to stand on words completely original and new), and of those who are called upon as witnesses for the truth. Bonnefoy endeavors to show his faith in two ways: by his own poems, and by his many writings on the work of other poets, writers and plastic artists.

As a student I welcomed Bonnefoy's books, his poems and his critical essays, because they gave me hope: hope in the possibility of a critical faith which, however critical, would be conducive to charity. With ever more exacting readings and more uncovered lapses of truth and care, however, my hope gradually receded, and now has vanished. Ricardo Nirenberg's celebration of Yves Bonnefoy in Offcourse 24 made me aware that a telling of a part of the process I underwent from hope to essential mistrust might be interesting, again as an antidote (an antidote to the purported antidote, although perhaps not as sweet).

I think my first intimation that not everything was right in Bonnefoy's ethic-aesthetic practice was way back, when, after a re-reading of his book of essays, L'improbable, I re-read the dedication at the beginning: "Je dédie ce livre à l'improbable, c'est à dire à ce qui est. A un esprit de veille. Aux théologies négatives", etc. And I asked myself how could it be that a poet who had written a book of poems titled "Anti-Platon" (1962), and who consistently inscribed in his banners, "Anti-Gnoses" and "Anti-Neoplatonists," because of course all of those postulated a transcendence, a beyond—how could such a thinking man praise, right from the kick-off, "negative theologies," all of which have direct Platonic filiations, and none of which endeavors to refuse a transcendence, but to make it more sublime? Could it be that this poet in whom I had placed my hope used those pregnant words merely because he liked their sound, their aura or their prestige? It was an incipient, uncomfortable feeling, where contributed many other doubts arising from that same reading; for example, in the essay "Le Temps et l'intemporel dans la peinture du Quattrocento", part of L'improbable, Plotinus appears to state that a beautiful thing, an artistic object, should have no parts. A consultation of Enneads I, 6, and VI, 9 reassured me that Plotinus had no such scatty ideas about art or about life: his conception of beauty is that the One, or onenness, holds the parts together (tà mória katáskhêi), no different from Coleridge's definition, "The beautiful is that in which the many still seen as many becomes one."

There were dozens of little things like that (little, that is, if you don't care much about theology or philosophy), and those little things alerted me to the possibility that Bonnefoy was not immune to that morbus Gallicus consisting in privileging rhetoric, fashion (or ever-fashionable anti-fashion), over truth. But, I told myself, a poet is not a philosopher, nor a theologian, even though he may often sound like one; that he has little respect for truth would be damning indeed, but perhaps all the blemishes I had found arose not from disrespect for truth but from the too much sun of his own poetic truth, which distorted the views of others—Plato, Plotinus, and the many authorities, ancient and modern, which grace Bonnefoy's essays and sometimes even his poems. The benefit of my doubt vanished when the book mentioned above, Lieux et destins de l'image (1999), came under my eyes. More precisely, when I read the chapter titled, "La poétique de Shakespeare : remarques préliminaires (1983-1984)"; and more precisely still, when I tried to make sense of what Bonnefoy has to say there about The Rape of Lucrece.

Bonnefoy has translated much of Shakespeare into French, so he is intimately familiar with the texts and conversant with the secondary literature, something that cannot be said about his Plato or his Plotinus. For those who are not so intimately familiar with Shakespeare, let us recall the Argument that heads The Rape of Lucrece:


"Lucius Tarquinus (for his excessive pride surnamed Superbus), after he had caused his own father-in-law Servius Tullius to be cruelly murd'red, and contrary to the Roman laws and customs, not requiring or staying for the people's suffrages, had possessed himself of the kingdom, went, accompanied with his sons and other noblemen of Rome, to besiege Ardea; during which siege, the principal men of the army meeting one evening at the tent of Sextus Tarquinus, the King's son, in their discourses after supper every one commended the virtues of his own wife; among whom Collatinus extolled the incomparable chastity of his wife Lucretia. In that pleasant humor they all posted to Rome, and intending by their secret and sudden arrival to make trial of that which every one had before avouched, only Collatinus finds his wife (though it were late in the night) spinning amongest her maids; the other ladies were all found dancing and revelling, or in several disports; whereupon the noblemen yielded Collatinus the victory, and his wife the fame. At that time Sextus Tarquinus being inflamed with Lucrece's beauty, yet smothering his passions for the present departed with the rest back to the camp; from whence he shortly after privily withdrew himself, and was (according to his estate) royally entertained and lodged by Lucrece at Collatium. The same night he treacherously stealeth into her chamber, violently ravish'd her, and early in the morning speedeth away. Lucrece, in this lamentable plight, hastily dispatcheth messengers, one to Rome for her father, another to the camp for Collatine. They came, the one accompanied with Junius Brutus, the other with Publius Valerius; and finding Lucrece attired in mourning habit, demanded the cause of her sorrow. She, first taking an oath of them for her revenge, revealed the actor, and whole manner of his dealing, and withal suddenly stabbed herself ..."

This is all we need from the Argument; what interests Bonnefoy is the 200-line episode (1366-1568) where Lucrece, having dispatched the messengers, waits for her father and her husband, meanwhile looking at a picture of the taking of Troy. Hallen Smith writes in his Introduction to the text in The Riverside Shakespeare (the very edition Bonnefoy recommended to his audience at the Collège de France) about an earlier poem by Samuel Daniel, The Complaint of Rosamond, which influenced Shakespeare, and where the heroine also examines a work of art; adding that "a passage of this sort is a convention in the complaint form." The bard, says Smith, wanted to fill Lucrece's waiting time with something ("a need that would be especially apparent to a playwright"), and I should add, strong citadels used to be a regular metaphor for womanly virtue, Troy being especially apposite since the most classic, and since it was taken, like Lucrece, by deceit, as told in the second Book of the Aeneid. None of these rather obvious points is mentioned by Bonnefoy, whose aim is, it turns out, to show that the Troy episode is Shakespeare's manifesto on the mimetic arts, no less. Bonnefoy is intent on proving the author of The Rape to be "plus perplexe encore", even more critical of the artist's calling, than Plato himself in the Republic or the Phaedrus (Lieux et Destins, p. 88). Thus will Shakespeare illustriously count among the forerunners of Bonnefoy.

"Why does Lucrece" asks Bonnefoy (loc. cit., p.86), "who has been ravished by Tarquin and should be now thinking only of her grief, why does she tarry so long before a painting—or a tapestry—described in such minute detail in two-hundred lines?" His answer: "Because she needs the image in order to understand her own situation, but also because what has just happened can be blamed on images—and artists—as much as on Tarquin who has sexually abused her." Who is blaming images and artists as much as Tarquin: Lucrece, or the author, that is Shakespeare? Bonnefoy doesn't say, but in either case the attribution is so dire and the indictment so sweeping, that we push forward for proof. And here's what we get:

Lucrece beholds Hecuba, Queen of Troy, "Staring on Priam's wounds with her old eyes, / Which bleeding under Pyrrhus' proud foot lies. / In her the painter had anatomiz'd / Time's ruin, beauty's wrack, and grim's care's reign; / Her cheeks with chops and wrinkles were disguis'd, / Of what she was, no semblance did remain." (Rape of Lucrece, 1448 ff.) And Bonnefoy comments (Lieux et Destins, p. 87), "Up to this point art is the mirror of reality ... Such an art, mimesis, allows Lucrece to shed tears while gazing at Hecuba's image, and that function is useful." Identification in grief, then, should be chalked up to the good side of painting. But — "but there isn't only Hecuba in that painting," Bonnefoy goes on: "There, in a corner, Sinon the traitor who abused the Trojans, and that perfidious man is represented under attractive, trust-inspiring features. Was the painter a liar? Not yet at this point, since Sinon and Tarquin have both profited, in real life, from their deceiving features: a painting which lies in this way is only too true. Nevertheless Lucrece tears the figure of Sinon with her nails. And of this action, as passionate as it is unreasonable—we recognize in it the old theme whose emblem were Zeuxis' grapes—we ought to ask ourselves whether it is the effect of a dangerous and blamable power of painting."

Let us pause here, before we get to what is, for Bonnefoy, this "dangerous and blamable power of painting." The word "traitor" applied to Sinon, whose story is told in the Second Book of Virgil's Aeneid, is a little unfair: Sinon was a Danaan, a cousin of Odysseus, and what he did (he persuaded the Trojans to take the huge, warrior-laden wooden horse into their citadel) was a ruse of war, not treason—unless, of course, one speaks like a grief-stricken Trojan. Lucrece, as we have seen, identifies herself with Hecuba and the unfortunate Trojan women, so it is natural she should compare Sinon to Tarquin—but is Bonnefoy identifying with the Trojans too? Here, as before, we are unable to decide who speaks: Shakespeare's Lucrece, William Shakespeare, or Bonnefoy. Suppose the painter had represented Sinon with a villain's face and in a traitor's attitude: wouldn't that have been like piling on the Trojans, especially on their king, Priam, the blame of utter stupidity on top of pitiable misfortune? Perfect illusion or verisimilitude, the "old theme whose emblem were Zeuxis' grapes" (so "true" that birds would peck on them), certainly plays a part in Lucrece's tearing of the figure, because it plays a part in Lucrece's self identification. Bonnefoy does not mention that long before Lucrece tears "Sinon" with her nails, she wanted to find Helen in the painting so as to tear her, the original cause of the Trojan disaster: "Show me the strumpet that began this stir, / That with my nails her beauty I may tear." (Rape of Lucrece, ll. 1471-2.) This suggests that Lucrece's animus was directed against what she took to be the historical causes of the grief with which she identified her own: first Helen, then Sinon.

Bonnefoy, however, would have Lucrece's animus directed against the painter exclusively. "Why did Lucrece think of that painting right after her rape?" he asks. "Shouldn't we assume that when Tarquin arrived—as she was still grieving from that other rape she had suffered, the nocturnal visit of her husband who came from the war front with his friends to check on the behavior of their wives—she had looked upon the respectful visitor (Tarquin) based on the all too seductive image (Sinon's) which had led her to dream of beauty joined to virtue?" Before we continue with Bonnefoy's analysis, let us stop for a moment and make two remarks. First, nothing in the texts—Shakespeare's or Virgil's—authorizes us to suppose that Lucrece was grieving from that nocturnal visit, that she knew what its purpose was or even that it had occurred. Second, and most important, to maintain that Sinon's painted image had led her to dream of beauty joined to virtue we must assume, at least, that in her previous viewings of the painting Lucrece had forgotten who Sinon was, and misidentified him to the point of believing he was a paragon of virtue: this is very hard to swallow.

"Shakespeare described at length the war between the roses and the lilies on Lucrece's face when she received Tarquin," Bonnefoy goes on. "And the fact that she kills herself points to a feeling of guilt whose cause is perhaps her confusion (trouble) at that moment, in which she might see, too late, a provocation or an invitation." Here, again, we are presented with two false causes. Roses and lilies, red and white, point to the simultaneous presence of beauty and chastity in Lucrece: this old topos must be sorely twisted to make it signify a possible provocation or an invitation to courtship. And the fact that indeed, Lucrece kills herself, cannot be used to point at anything at all as to Shakespeare's intentions, much less the heroine's guilt, since that's the way the story happened to go; Lucrece killed herself in Livy and in Ovid, as in the collective memory of literate mankind, and we can hardly imagine any author of Shakespeare's time taking up the old story but subverting the bloody end. Besides, Shakespeare's Lucrece tells us, "Poor helpless help, the treasure stol'n away, / To burn the guiltless casket where it lay!" (lines 1056-7): "the treasure" is her chastity, "the guiltless casket" is herself. So much for Lucrece's guilt. Augustine of Hippo, in The City of God, I, 19, saw more profoundly and correctly. He, too, considered the possibility that Lucretia might have felt guilty, but he dismissed it and concluded: "The act committed on her [Lucretia] without her consent filled her with shame. Being a Roman with a passion for praise, she was afraid that, if she lived, men might think she did willingly what she had endured by violence. Hence, as witness of her intention, she decided to put that punishment before the eyes of men who could not read her conscience."

Not guilt, but shame, is the diagnose of that great psychologist, Augustine. One regrets that the authority of the Church fathers is not what it used to be.

Based on all those false causes and misidentifications, the verdict, for Bonnefoy, is that in Shakespeare's poem the painter and his painting are responsible for Lucrece's undoing. "The artist can well have depicted Sinon's duplicity; he exalts, however, the prestige of appearances." With that present tense, we take it, Bonnefoy implicates other painters, other artists, and the mimetic arts in general. I guess it is possible to imagine a painted Sinon with screwed-up or shifty eyes, or with a smirk on his face portending treason. "... the painter is then the one who seduces and confuses, instead of instructing; he apes Nature, but from outside of its law, like Satan..." But how much more satanic would have been a painter who drew Sinon with well-marked signs of treason on his face, for such a Sinon would have led Lucrece to believe that felony is always apparent in the felon's features, and that therefore she had nothing to fear from a Tarquin with straight eyes and no smirk. Contrary to Bonnefoy's verdict, the painting Shakespeare described could have been a valuable lesson for Lucrece, it would perhaps have let her avoid rape, had she looked at it, before the event, with more attention to detail.

Shakespeare chez Bonnefoy then, is a prophet, a forerunner of a faith, viz. Bonnefoy's faith. This is not surprising, for very great poets, vates, have often been claimed as prophets in the West; medieval Christianity had its Virgil and the endless commentaries on the Fourth Eclogue. But in Bonnefoy's case there is something else. He views Shakespeare as conscious of a great crisis in his age—the collapse of the old symbolic, cosmic order at the birth of modern science—and striving to rescue from the ruins a highest organizing value, "une certaine idée, renouvelée, de l'amour" (Lieux et destins, p. 107) (Somehow, it reminds me of de Gaulle's "une certaine idée de la France…") And even if the French poet doesn't explicitly say so, it is clear that he views himself, four centuries on, in the same light, striving to rescue some renewed idea of love, which he calls Presence, from what he sees as ruins all around. Simplifying somewhat, we can put it thus: Shakespeare saw the dissolution of intentionality in the universe out there, mathematical science having started to erode the belief in a beneficent—or maleficent—designer. Thereafter intentionality was, more and more, confined to our selves: exiled from the objective, it took refuge in the subject. Bonnefoy, for his part, sees the present situation as the dissolution of intentionality in the subject, in thought, in gesture and discourse: for Deconstruction and the Telquelistes, to speak of the meaning of an utterance is as quaintly outmoded as to speak of the meaning of an earthquake. Bonnefoy's poetic mission, then, appears to him as parallel to Shakespeare's, a mission of rescuing love from ruin.

What we have here, then, is yet another theory-laden reading of Shakespeare: much like Stephen Greenblatt bends the bard to New Historicism, and Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield do their own bendings to sex and Queer Theory—a complete list, however, would exhaust my hard disk—Yves Bonnefoy tortures his Shakespeare into a prophet of Presence and a champion against the evils and temptations of the image. That is emphatically not what my hope had hoped to find: perhaps it was a foolish hope, a youthful dotage. In any case, it's gone.

When perusing Bonnefoy's recent book, Le poète et "le flot mouvant des multitudes" (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2003,) reading the first few pages, where the poet rehearses once more his ontological categories—being, existence, presence, the dignity of medieval man and woman—I found that God created those latter two on the seventh day (page 13). What are we to make of that? A typo? Perhaps Bonnefoy knows something we don't regarding God and His vacation? I am inclined to believe that despite his professed respect for the Other's word, Bonnefoy is simply not a careful reader. And when, even more recently, I read Bonnefoy's reply (Times Literary Supplement, August 12, 2005, page 13) to Christopher Ricks, who had criticized the French poet for making untenable distinctions between verse and prose (TLS, February 25, 2005, pages 13-15), and there, in Bonnefoy's reply, I find he resurrects this difference: in the English language "verse spring[s] from everyday life in a seemingly natural way… Now there is nothing of this sort in French, [where] verse has had to detach itself from prose through a fixed and regulated number of syllables…" Which reminds me not of de Gaulle this time but of Rémy de Gourmont, who in his La Culture des Idées, p. 291, published roughly a hundred years ago, said more or less the same thing, but—such are the changes brought about by a full century, even on the old chestnuts—he took it as evident proof of the superiority of the French over the English language and literature.

For all of those, and many more inanities unearthed which are too sad to tell, I should critique Ricardo Nirenberg's characterization of Bonnefoy's poetics as one of reconciliation, one opposed to the violence of the imaginary that exploded with Rimbaud. That may well correspond to Bonnefoy's claims, but how can it be squared with his consistent deafness and his outrageous twisting of the word of other people—real or imaginary; God's, Shakespeare or Lucrece—to serve his own agenda? Is there, or can we conceive of, a greater violence of the imagination?


Miriam Melzar has published many articles on Comp Lit; presently she is working on a book titled "Feu Flambé And Other French Perversities."


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