Academic journal article Style

Toward a Reading of Forms

Academic journal article Style

Toward a Reading of Forms

Article excerpt


Does this book need an extended justification? Nothing would seem more natural than its purpose: to grasp meanings by way of forms; to discriminate patterns and significant features; to reveal those unedited knots, fissures, and textures in literary discourse that signal the simultaneous occurrence of an authentic experience and of a realized work. It is a long time since anyone has doubted this: art consists in this interdependence of a mental universe and a perceptible construction, of a vision and a form.(1)

Perhaps things are not all that simple: concerning the nature of the literary fact and the means of understanding works, concerning the interrelations of creation and reality, of the artist and history, of sensation and language, concerning the role in art of that primary function, the imagination, uncertainties and disagreements abound. But if there is one concept that provokes contradiction and disagreement, it can only be that nevertheless central one of form. It must be said that difficulties accumulate here, and I can scarcely attempt to resolve them.

In these pages, preceding not a speculative work, but a series of applied readings, I will confine myself to specifying a few points, to anticipating certain misunderstandings, and to speaking first of all about the experience upon which I am relying.


To enter into a work is to change universes, to open an horizon. An authentic work presents itself simultaneously as the revelation of an uncrossable threshold and as a bridge thrown across this forbidden threshold. A self-enclosed world constructs itself before me, but a gate is opened, forming part of the construction. The work as a whole is a closing and an opening, a secret and the key to its secret. But the initial experience remains that of the "New World" and of the gulf; whether it is modern or classical, the work marks the advent of an order discontinuous with existing affairs and the affirmation of a state that obeys its own laws and its own logic.(2) As reader, listener, observer, I feel myself accepted, but also refused; in the work's presence, I cease to feel and to live as one habitually feels or lives. Caught up in a metamorphosis, I witness a destruction preliminary to a creation.

Of course, reality -- the experience of reality and action upon reality -- is not in general foreign to art. But art only turns toward the real in order to abolish it and to substitute a new reality for it. Contact with art is, in the first instance, the recognition of this advent. Like the crossing of a threshold, an immersion in poetry, a release into a specific activity, contemplation of a work entails putting our mode of existence in question and-displacing all of our perspectives: "it is a passage from a disorder to an order" (to recall, while modifying it slightly, the expression of Paul Valery) which is true even if this order is a will to disorder, a passage from meaninglessness to the coherence of meanings, from the unformed to form, from the empty to the full, from absence to presence, the presence of an organized language, the presence of a spirit in a form.


To the experience of the spectator corresponds that of the creator. Numerous and similar are the statements of artists who emphasize, from their own viewpoint, the same rupture, the same autonomy; the poet at work sees himself as distinct and separate: poetic sensibility differs from practical sensibility, and so forth. This notion is already the thesis of Diderot in Le Paradoxe sur le comedien; Balzac recalls it in his Massimilia Doni and derives from the disjunction between experience and expression a law governing all creation: when the tenor Genovese, a brilliant singer, is made to "bell like a stag" the moment his role as the lover places him on stage in the presence of the diva with whom he is smitten, Balzac comments, "When an artist has the misfortune to be filled with passion that he wants to express, he does not know how to depict it, since it is the thing itself instead of an image of it. …

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