Four Elemental Bodies, poetry by Claude Royet-Journoud. Translated from the French by Keith Waldrop. Burning Deck Press, 2013.
The ability to write a clean line with no shadow or metaphor is a testament to the ineffable grace of the Real, to the unrepresentable. There can be an object so real in a poem that it cannot be anything but itself, and so intensely itself, that the mystery of it leaves one speechless. Such is the work of Claude Royet-Journoud.
Four Elemental Bodies is a tetralogy consisting of four previous books by Royet-Journoud originally published in France by Gallimard: Reversal, The Notion of Obstacle, Objects Contain the Infinite, and Natures Indivisible (Le renversement, La notion d’obstacle, Les objets contiennent l’infini, Les natures indivisibles).
The title is apt. It has a scientific ring. Zukofsky, a clear influence on Royet-Journoud, brought a scientific attitude to poetic construction. “To the poet acting at once as observer and instrument the scientific standards of physical measurement are only the beginnings of images of poems… The poet, no less than the scientist, works on the assumption that inert and live things and relations hold enough interest to keep him alive as part of nature.”
Gustaf Flaubert urged a similar approach to this intensely objectified view of language over a hundred years earlier in a letter to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie dated December 12th, 1857: “Art ought to rise above personal feelings and nervous susceptibilities. It is time to give it the precision of the physical sciences, by means of a pitiless method.”
This scientific disposition toward objectivity, however, carries a hazard. If a language is too perfect, too precise, we cannot use it to think. It would be too constricting, too punctilious. Wittgenstein’s famous axiom from his Logico-Tractatus Philosophicus: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” remind us that language is an adjustable medium and that by disrupting its structure we can investigate and confront those limits.
“There is always a play between representation and the unrepresentable,” Royet-Journoud observed in an interview with Éric Pesty. “Yes, the unrepresentable. There is always this limit to language. This impossibility of at once being before and behind. One is always in language, one can never extricate oneself, it’s impossible. So, what can one do along this wall, without ever managing to get around it? One is effectively returned to this limit.”
The strategies Royet-Journoud employs for dealing with this dilemma are a reversal of the usual poetic devices. He eschews metaphor, assonance and alliteration. He writes in a tone of scrupulous neutrality, effacing the sovereign voice of the author and assuming the aspect of an elusive cicerone or phantasmal counterbalance to the reader’s or listener’s attention. His fragmentary lines have the flatness of surface to be found on a tabletop or sheet of paper. He lauds the “clear line” of Hergé, the Belgian comic book writer and artist best known for The Adventures of Tintin series. Hergé developed the “ligne claire,” a style of drawing that uses strong clear lines of uniform value in which shadows are often illuminated, and so lose their identity as shadows.
“The problem resides in literalness (not in metaphor),” Royet-Journoud remarked in an interview with Mathieu Bénézet, the need to measure language by its ‘minimal’ units of meaning. For me, Eluard’s verse ‘The earth is blue like an orange’ can be exhausted, it annihilates itself in an excess of meaning. Whereas Marcelin Pleynet’s ‘the far wall is a whitewashed wall’ is and remains, by its very exactness, and evidently within its context, paradoxically indeterminate as to meaning and so will always ‘vehiculate’ narrative. This might be experienced painfully.”
I am reminded of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s allusion to the tale of Peter Schlemiel in the Philosophical Investigations, in which the devil took the shadow of Schlemiehl from the ground in exchange for a bottomless wallet. Wittgenstein uses the story to propose a form of expression in which all the components have equal value, no element casts a lesser shade, but also to underscore the impossibility of separating thought from language: “Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking, and which it would be possible to detach from speaking, rather as the Devil took the shadow of Schlemiehl from the ground.”
Thought and language are as interrelated as valves on a trumpet or buttons on a shirt. “Look at the sentence as an instrument, and at its sense as its employment,” Wittgenstein observed in section 421 of his Philosophical Investigations. Words are defined by their use, in the same way a piston is defined by its use as a moving component in a reciprocating engine, and whose purpose is to transfer force from an expanding gas to the crankshaft via piston rod and so move the sentence down the highway, or cause it to lift from the tarmac and enter the clouds.
“Rain makes the form appear,” appears on page 43 of Reversal. Reversal appeared in 1972 and was translated into English by Keith Waldrop in 1973. It’s a fascinating way to begin a series. Reverse position. Reverse ideas. Reverse verse. Reverse the question. Reverse the answer. Reverse the image so that we see impressions the letters make from the other side. “I would love to be here” writes Royet-Journoud at the bottom of what would be page 46 (it has no number), reversing the writer/reader relationship. What is here (there) are those six words, “I would love to be here.” The reader is there. The writer is not. The writer’s words are there, if it can be said that those words belong to the writer. The conditional tense makes them even more tentative. Which is all any word is anyway: a tense, a tension, a tender.
The Notion of Obstacle makes evident what is a uniform and primal element in all of Royet-Journoud’s work, which is the whiteness of the page, the amount of space between the words and lines, which may also be registered in the air as silence. Silence, Royet-Journoud has claimed elsewhere, is a form. Silence is as definitive as the holes in a harmonica, or wings on a crane. Here, the word ‘obstacle’ may be taken literally, to mean a wall, a door, a rock, or a group of words that must be encountered on the page. Though if I break ranks with the literalism of the objectivist program, and give it a more abstract spin, it might be said that in Indian philosophy non-representational feelings are considered to be an obstacle to rational thought.
Até appears as a single word after the section titled “Name-Work” in The Notion of Obstacle. ‘Até’ is the Greek goddess of mischief, delusion, blind folly and ruin. She was the eldest daughter of Zeus, forced to remain on earth as punishment for persuading Zeus to take an oath which enabled Hera to confer power on Eurystheus rather than Hercules. The starkness of this single name on the page is followed by a blank page on the reverse side, and the lines on the adjacent page: “that / blue / and unwithdrawing.” The words, each italicized, are separated by inches of blank space. The demonstrative pronoun ‘that’ gives the word ‘blue’ a perplexing intensity. Could it be the sky? The puzzling line “and unwithdrawing,” which appears some distance below, un-italicized, adds enigma and persistence to the word ‘blue.’ We do not know with certainty whether ‘blue’ is intended as a noun or adjective. My own addiction to metaphor runs contrary to Royet-Journoud’s eschewal of resemblance and comparison and I begin to read my own narrative into it: the words are remnants, bits of wood, rag, something washed ashore, providing clues to a former narrative.
Royet-Journoud has often referred to detective work as an explication for the enigmatic quality of his work, in particular the “minimal units of meaning” we find on the page. “I think that there is a narrative, as I said - a plot in a detective story - in the sense that there is always a search for a missing body,” he revealed in an interview with Mathieu Bénézet in 1981.
To state it concisely, there is an accident which permits legibility. How can I explain it? It’s rather like the restoration of a painting when a crack in the surface reveals another image underneath. At this point the real investigation begins. In order to find out what the nature or state of the hidden image is, the restorer scratches the surface in various places, provoking himself those accidents which permit the image to be deciphered. He needs to know if the covered painting is complete in order to proceed…Should he efface or restore the surface image, uncover or blot out the second image. It is not, in fact, a question of choosing between a real but imperfect surface image and a second image which is virtual but solicited. What counts is the “passage” from the surface accident to the virtual image; as the accident changes position, the investigation becomes integrated into the surface, which as a consequence becomes self-narrating. It is not surface and depth - old and new image, which defines my work, but this mobility constituted into the book.
It takes a great amount of time for Royet-Journoud to produce a book. He excludes himself from the population of writers who find themselves “inhabited” by language, writers who have been captivated by the spellbinding properties of language, its charms and enchantments, its Circean allures. It is his practice to write a great body of prose over a long period time, prose with no literary value, prose which he refers to as nothing, “Je passé mon temps avec rien et je m’obstine et j’insiste sur ce rien, et donc il y a d’abord ce travail qui est très corporel, qui consiste à écrire une grande quantité de prose sans valeur littéraire [“I pass my time with nothing and I persevere and I insist upon this nothing, and so there is at first this work which is very corporal, which consists of writing a great quantity of prose with no literary value”]. By “nothing,” I presume Royet-Journoud refers to the accidental, the everyday, the matter-of-fact, the barely perceptible. Details that do not appear to be charged with meaning in any way. He then culls through this material, extracting certain elements and distributing it over several pages, facing pages as well as recto-verso. In the next stage, he begins to work on the language, neutralizing the text, suppressing metaphor, assonance, alliteration, remaining attentive all the while to whatever narrative begins to emerge, whatever language begins to demonstrate carnality, physicality, embodying, as he puts it, “this language within a language.”
Hence, each of the books in this series is separated by five or six years. Objects Contain the Infinite appeared in 1983. The title comes from a paragraph in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Remarks:
In some sense or other, I must have two kinds of experience: one which is of the finite and which cannot transcend the finite (the idea of such a transcendence is nonsense even on its own terms) and one of the infinite. And that’s how it is. Experience as experience of the facts gives me the finite; the objects contain the infinite. Of course not as something rivaling finite experience, but in intension. Not as though I could see space as practically empty, with just a very small finite experience in it. But, I can see in space the possibility of any finite experience. That is, no experience could be too large for it our exhaust it; not of course because we are acquainted with the dimensions of every experience and know space to be larger, but because we understand this as belonging to the essence of space.
“To speak is to see your body,” Royet-Journoud writes in the section titled “Updated as Required.” Reading is spectral, hallucinatory. We can feel the weight of a book in our hands, but the letters carry desire in silence, and engorge it with imaginative energy. Language is a mediating instrumentality. It can limit and exclude, but it may also extend and open. It can cut. It can bleed. It can serve as a fulcrum of primary being. But here, I fall into the error of metaphor.
Since metaphor is a reference to something else, it detracts from the reality at hand, that which is most immediately there, within our field of perception. Royet-Journoud seeks a pre-meaning, a disequilibrium of incompletion in which the book is in perpetual movement, which he refers to as a “denudation successive,” a continual unveiling which generates the fiction that is at the heart of language. The goal, in other words, is to arrive at a self-generating narrative that keeps meaning indeterminate and in constant motion. There is a paradox here, because by revealing language to be a fiction, there is equally an attempt to contradict that fictionality and use that very resource to arrive at something real. “On tourne autour d’un drame, d’une éngime,” Royet-Journoud revealed in an interview with Éric Pesty, “De la suture de la fiction et d’un reel hypothétique. C’est en ça que la construction est extrêmement delicate. Le moindre soufflé peut tout bilayer.” [One turns around a drama, an enigma. Of a suture of fiction and a hypothetical real. It is there that the construction is extremely delicate. The least puff of air can sweep it all away].
Merleau-Ponty expressed this value in the preface to Phenomenology of Perception,
Phenomenology is the study of essences; and according to it, all problems amount to finding definitions of essences: the essence of perception, or the essence of consciousness, for example. But phenomenology is also a philosophy which puts essences back into existence, and does not expect to arrive at an understanding of man and the world from any starting point other than that of their “facticity.” … It is also a philosophy for which the world is “already there” before reflection begins - as an inalienable presence; and all its efforts are concentrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world… It is the search for a philosophy which shall be a “rigorous science,” but it also offers an account of space, time, and the world as we “live” in them. It tries to give a direct description of our experience as it is.
The section titled “Love in Ruins” is highly unusual as it consists of blocks of prose rather than single lines or individual words acting as electrons within the magnetic field of the page. “He brings to his books the truth of a body at a given moment,” Royet-Journoud writes on page 237, “Between sleep and fable.” What would that space be? The space between the stillness of a sleeping body and fable, a fictive realm? The theater comes to mind, the stage and its components. The jingle of a fool’s costume, a blind man leaping from a shallow bank.
The title Natures Indivisible brings to mind the atomism of the Roman poet Lucretius, and especially his magnificent poem De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things. But there the analogy lies inert, a curious possibility, “another grammar.” Royet-Journoud does not predicate, or speculate. He presents. He unfolds. He uncovers. In the section titled i.e., which is Latin (id est) for “that is,” or “in other words,” are the lines “like thought / the resemblance / is at syllable’s edge.” The image creates its own vanishing. It is seemingly there, then not there, as our eyes drop from the edge into space, into the whiteness of the page. There is no resemblance, there is only the anticipation of resemblance. The final line of the poem on this page, “a nerve discerns daylight,” holds the attention to the geography of the page. But there, with the metaphor of geography I let the line slip away. Nerve, I remind myself, is a word. Word and nerve tangent to what is at hand. “something like sharpening a knife.”