9. the means of language

— for Eric Gans
    Quand il parlait, il ne levait jamais un bras ni un doigt : il avait tué la marionnette.
    — Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste
    When he spoke, he never raised his arm, nor his finger; he had killed the puppet.
    — Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste[0]

    It is customary to introduce a French subject in the history of ideas (l’histoire des mentalités) with the simile coined by the great mediaevalist Marc Bloch:[1] « Le bon historien, lui, ressemble à l’ogre de la légende. Là où il flaire la chair humaine, il sait que là est son gibier. » The good historian, says Bloch, resembles the legendary ogre: wherever he smells human flesh, there he knows to seek his prey. But the postmodern ogre is a conflicted creature. Undermining the cause of his own carnivorous appetite, he holds that the singularity of definitively modern works consists precisely in their fundamental ambiguity. In so far as historical events are molded by human hands, this singularity must extend to all subjects of modern history.
    Witness Ross Chambers epitomizing French literary modernism in the two key masterpieces of that movement, Charles Baudelaire’s verse collection Les fleurs du mal and Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary:[2]

Their writing has an elusive quality that resists interpretative closure and makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to locate a subject in which an “intended meaning” would have originated. As a result, reading modern works becomes a literally interminable procedure, and in both the text and its interpretation the insistence of unconscious forces ― that is, of desire ― becomes impossible to ignore.

Physicists teach that perpetual motion is impossible. Economists agonize over the prospects of full employment. Little do they know that resistance to interpretative closure is all it takes to ensure that the tribe of literary critics becomes fully employed in the manufacture of perpetual motion compelled by the insistence of desire and predicated upon the impossibilities of ignoring. Continue reading 9. the means of language