Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Semiosis and Hunger: Riffaterre on Mallarme

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Semiosis and Hunger: Riffaterre on Mallarme

Article excerpt

   Hope is a subtle Glutton-- 
   He feeds upon the Fair-- 
   And yet--inspected closely 
   What Abstinence is there-- 
   His is the Halcyon Table-- 
   That never seats but One-- 
   And whatsoever is consumed 
   The same amount remain--(1) 

Emily Dickinson

Michael Riffaterre's Semiotics of Poetry is a provocative theoretical statement because it insists on the unity and autonomy of poetic discourse, separates its signifying process from others it is usually conjoined with, and assigns the poem, once it has been established to be a unique kind of sign, a privileged place within the more general domain of literariness. To paraphrase two of the work's most dramatic points: it asserts, first, that every poem turns around something suggested in a void, a matrix, or absent text, that its components circuitously point to; and second, that the consummate poem turns around an absence which in fact contains nothing. Here, the basic tendency of literary language to attract attention to itself is perfectly fulfilled, in a wholly (and solely) self-referential verbal construct.

It is hardly surprizing that Mallarme's so-called "sonnet en yx" is chosen, toward the opening of the work, as the ultimate example of this conception of poetry, since the poem was originally entitled "Sonnet allegorique de luimeme" and the poet himself described it as a "sonnet nul et se reflechissant de toutes les facons." (2) And it seems equally natural that Riffaterre should return to Mallarme at the end, using 'Don du poeme' to illustrate genre-induced obscurity. But given this rhetorical privileging of Mallarmean exemplarity, I thought it might be interesting to explore how far and in what sense the Symbolist master's depictions of poetry's purity and autonomy correspond to our master semiotician's representations of its signifying process.

To begin, we might note that a measured use of poetic figures in Riffaterre's text suggests the special status that he, like Mallarme, assigns to the poem's significance (even though he generally stops short of discussing poetry's relations with the world). That which is semiotic in poetry, the semiosis which it is poetry's function (most purely) to produce, consistently appears in Riffaterre's hands through a hierarchical dynamic which forces the reader to recognize its predominance over every other thing it is set against--which is to say, all the complex, haphazard images of "reality" that disparate readers (reasonably or not) conjure up in front of the text--images which Riffaterre tends to group together under the term mimetic.

The hierarchy of semiosis over mimesis is set out from the start and figuratively underscored in the concrete language of sport: we are told, for example, that "the reader must surmount the mimesis hurdle" and that "ungrammaticalities will thrust themselves forward as stumbling blocks, to be understood eventually on a second level." (3) And this physical representation of the reader's intellectual struggle to achieve hermeneutic understanding is further dramatized by Riffaterre's repeated recourse, at key points, to a metaphorical language of triumph in which semiosis, or literariness, or textual form personified (not the reader) arises from the struggle victorious. This happens initially in connection with the analysis of Gautier's deceptively descriptive 'In deserto': "Now the semiosis triumphs completely over mimesis, for the text is no longer attempting to establish the credibility of a description." (4) And it happens again in the analysis of Eluard's famous simile "La terre est bleue comme une orange / Jamais une erreur les mots ne mentent pas," in which, as with the "sonnet en yx," the "triumph of literariness" consists in the derivation of the poem from a zero matrix, one that makes "the text the transform not of a word but of a trope." (5)

Along with this motif of triumphant semiosis, a cluster of recurring figures that fascinates me is that which, first wrapping up the analysis of Gautier's 'In Deserto,' systematically combines the language of games and rites to evoke poetry's signifying process. …

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