Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

LOOK AT THE WALL: Reading the Unsayable in Duras and Carson

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

LOOK AT THE WALL: Reading the Unsayable in Duras and Carson

Article excerpt

The irony of using language to chisel into what is apparently absent is the first quiver of discomfort. When language fails, form is important. And in poetry, language is always failing. Merleau-Ponty comes to the conclusion that "all language is indirect or allusive - that is, if you wish, silence" (80]. To best illuminate the centrality of the unsayable and unsayabilty that art -which I define as inclusive of various genres - literary, visual, performance - we can look at texts which assert silence. In my readings of Marguerite Duras and Anne Carson below, we can see clear examples of the irreducibility of art and the importance of silence, the limitations of language, and a creative engagement with the possibilities of form.

So we must talk about its silence, look at it. Attending to silence, blankness, the plain things begin to yield something. We might require some quiet to understand its impact, to observe, as John Cage did, that there is no such thing as silence (51). And thus we begin spinning in a dance of ontology that blurs further and further away from epistemology. Here, looking at texts choked up with language of death or reticent in the social habits of silence, I aim to show that only through a careful investigation of form sensitive to its phenomenological implications is it possible to read the unsayable. This argument hinges upon the urgency of Charles Altieri's assertion that we might bracket epistemic concerns and focus on "qualities like intensity, involvedness, and plasticity [as] not mere secondary features of experience but the very conditions that make for an enhanced sense of what is worth pursuing in our reflective lives" (274).

On March 5, Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker on the retrospective of American artist Cindy Sherman's work at the Museum of Modern Art. Schjeldahl writes, "The first sentence of the first wall text in the Sherman retrospective reads, 'Masquerading as a myriad of characters, Cindy Sherman (American, born 1954) invents personas and tableaus that examine the construction of identity, the nature of representation, and the artifice of photography' The images do no such thing of course. They hang on walls" (84). The reviewer insists that we do not interpret the work. First, and most importantly, we must attend to it. Schjeldahl lofts buoyant criticism at the "pathetic fallacy of attributing conscious actions to art works" as he praises Shermans as "the strongest and finest American artist of her time." What Schjeldahl is demanding of viewers of Sherman's work is not unlike what the formalist might insist the readers of poetry do: look at the art. We might hear the echo of French theorist Philippe LacoueLabarthe, who observes that "A poem has nothing to recount, nothing to say; what it recounts and says is that from which it wrenches away as a poem" (19). The poem is a poem, is itself doing what it does rather than "saying" something else, as the Sherman photograph is hanging on the wall, rather than examining constructs or artifice. We might say something, but the art must first be seen as doing what it does. What distinguishes Sherman's work is that its art is not reducible to the social or political. Schjeldahl laments, "You can winkle out the social comment, if you like - at the time many viewers projected rape scenarios - but you will have stopped looking."

This continuous looking is the formalist gesture, and while room must be made for the social comment - what philosopher Nick Zangwill calls "moderate aesthetic formalism" - where it is suitable, the work of continued looking - which demands patience, attentive looking, and rigor in these - might be trained (478). What is significant about theories of formal study, then, is that they demand this rigor. (It is not easy to keep looking at Cindy Sherman's work. This demands intensity, involvedness (Altieri, 274).) In his study of Paul Celan's poetry, a body of work that of course invites historical analysis in its relationship to the Holocaust, as it must, Lacoue-Labarthe observes that "A poem wants to say; indeed it is nothing but pure wanting-to-say But pure wanting-to-say nothing, nothingness, that against which and through which there is presence, what is" (20). …

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