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

By Souffrant, Leah | Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Souffrant, Leah, Pennsylvania Literary Journal


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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.