The Simplest of Signs: Victor Hugo and the Language of Images in France, 1850-1950

The Simplest of Signs: Victor Hugo and the Language of Images in France, 1850-1950

The Simplest of Signs: Victor Hugo and the Language of Images in France, 1850-1950

The Simplest of Signs: Victor Hugo and the Language of Images in France, 1850-1950

Synopsis

Must we learn how to read pictures? Or are pictures viewed, and texts read? If both pictures and texts are read, what theory accounts both for this reading and the manifest differences that exist between the two sign systems? In response to such questions, Timothy Raser traces the evolution of "simple signs".

Excerpt

Critics agree that NOTRE-DAME de paris had its origins in romanticism, but this assertion should not be understood too easily : the Gothic subject matter, the gloomy story, the local color and the hyperbole of the novel make it prototypically romantic, but the contention also addresses a rhetorical concern that preempts other descriptions and establishes strong links to Hugo's other works. This concern is what Pierre Leroux identified as “le style symbolique, ” and which revolves around a hope that poetic language on occasion points directly at meanings without passing through a decoding process. Leroux claimed that Hugo employed this “style” with a view to achieving greater “speed"; as motivations go, this is acceptable, but speed is not the only feature of this hoped-for language: direct communication, truth, reference , transparency, and many other valued concepts rely on this communicative short-cut, this ellipsis of decoding.

What was not plain to Leroux is that his friend Hugo was well aware of how seductive this language could be and how utopian it is too. Hugo weaves his signifiers into webs of meaning: even when he strives for simplicity, unequivocal meaning, a “mooring ” in reality, his words are so embedded in the text that it becomes difficult to tell whether meaning derives from a referent or from reference to other terms. Dates may refer to his life but also to the fiction of Olympio's time-line; names might refer to persons but also to personifications; promises and oaths might divide narratives into moments “before” and moments “after” the linguistic act, but then again, they might not. Textuality always reasserts itself in Hugo's writings.

This is true even of ekphrasis, the word-pictures that describe . . .

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