Perloff and/in France
France is a country of translations, but it has taken more than four decades before a book by Marjorie Perloff will have been published in France (a translation of Wittgenstein’s Ladder [University of Chicago, 1996] is to be released in 2012). This situation is not exceptional per se. Other important Anglo-Saxon authors have been ignored in Paris, the most blatant example being the almost Surrealist delay with which the major texts of cultural studies were revealed to Francophone readers. Yet the case of Perloff is different. If the resistance toward cultural studies can be explained by French universalism and the fear of communitarian drifts from the Jacobin center, it would be difficult to find any seeds of incompatibility between Perloff’s lifelong commitment to experimental poetry and the political, cultural, and ethical values that pervade poetical analysis in France. Unlike what has happened in the US, poetry in France is not reduced to the shallow forms of self-expression, self-help, political correctness, and community-building that Perloff has unceasingly denounced in her defense of real contemporary writing. In France, there is still room for experiment, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the avant-garde continues to define what poetry is or ought to be. This is demonstrated, for instance, by the funding policy of a key public player in the field, the Centre National du Livre (CNL), which consistently privileges experimental poetry with its frequent and well-mediatized anthologies of avant-garde writing that appear on the market (e.g. 2000’s Pièces détachées: une anthologie de la poésie française aujourd’hui and 2006’s Caisse à outils: un panorama de la poésie française aujourd’hui, edited by Jean-Michel Espitallier and directly published in cheap pocket editions in Paris), and by continuously emphasizing this type of literature in higher education. Moreover, Perloff has always paid great attention to French poetry, which she reads firsthand and of which she is one of the most lucid analysts outside France.
If none of the reasons mentioned above can explain the delayed reception of Perloff in France (or more precisely, its confinement to the small circles of progressive American studies), there must be something else: and that something is, I would like to argue, threefold.
First of all, Perloff is a fundamentally antiparochial thinker, a truly comparative voice characterized by the blending of close reading, cultural analysis, and literary theory (I do not claim this list to be exhaustive). In principle, such an antiparochialism can be embraced enthusiastically by French scholars (and it should be stressed that I haven’t found anywhere any negative or dismissing remark on Perloff’s work), but contrary to the French variants of what Perloff is defending, her approach is never monodisciplinary, and this is what goes against the grain of the institutionalized study of poetry in France. French poetry scholars remain monolingual when they are doing theory, and become very descriptive (i.e. nontheoretical) when they are doing comparative literature. True, there are exceptions to this rule, but the gap between the theoretical and the comparative is probably the backbone of the lack of curiosity for Perloff in France.
A second aspect can be found in the fact that Perloff’s thinking does not only exceed the barriers between languages (and by the way, this is quite a problem in French academe), but is also, to a certain extent, antiformalist and anti-language-centered. This statement may come as a surprise, if not an absolute misreading of Perloff, who is after all one of the ultimate close readers of the last decades. What I want to say is simply this: in Perloff’s work, literary writing has always a strong procedural and programmatic dimension, which links the materiality of the text to the ideality of a concept, a project, a poetics. Literary writing can never be reduced to just language. Such a stance diverges in the most radical way from the absolute vision of language with a capital L one finds at the core of many avant-garde movements and theory in France, where the work on the signifier is often considered a strategy against the idea.
Last but not least, there is a third reason, which is named John Cage. Although Cage is a mythical figure in France as well, his textual experiments, his poetics, and his philosophy of chance do not match the lastingly rationalist subtext of the French literary avant-garde, where humor, randomness, loss of control, ephemerality, refusal of authorship, etc., remain rather absent.
However, to translate is also a perlocutionary act: it does not only replicate a form and an idea, it also produces a change where it takes place. The translation of Wittgenstein’s Ladder (1996) will undoubtedly trigger a different reading of French literary theory by itself: Perloff discloses gaps, suggests bridges, and performs shortcuts — in other words — offering something new in France that will not go unnoticed. In that sense, the upcoming translation will not only reveal an author outside the inner circle of avant-garde specialists — it will transform the host culture, and this is what matters in the long run.
Al Filreis J. Gordon Faylor