Poetic uprisings

Poetry, knowledge, imagination

Georges Didi-Huberman at an October 2014 interview for the SON[I]A podcast series at Radio Web MACBA (Museu de'Art Contemporani de Barcelona). Photo by MACBA.

Note: The writing of the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman is so tightly bound up with images, so rich in ways of seeing, that it may sound odd to say that he first mattered to me as an invisible voice on the radio, long before I familiarized myself with his books. Of the latter, I only knew The Dancer of Solitudes, a beautiful meditation on the art of the flamenco dancer Israel Galván, brimming with quotations from Rilke, Valéry, Mallarmé, and García Lorca, among others. Having no background in art history, and immersed as I was in the work of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet — much of whose aesthetic can be summed up in his admonition to “beware of images” — I somehow persuaded myself that the bulk of Didi-Huberman’s corpus was off limits. (As it turned out, the impetus for Jaccottet’s first major poem — a 1946 Requiem written in revulsion after a friend showed him several photographs of Resistance fighters tortured and killed by the Nazis — was not unlike that for what is perhaps Didi-Huberman’s best-known book, Images in Spite of All, about the four surviving photos from Auschwitz; but therein lies another story…) That was before I became aware of the nightly interview program Du jour au lendemain, hosted until July 2014 on France Culture by the writer and broadcaster Alain Veinstein. Didi-Huberman’s prolific publishing rhythm meant that he featured as a guest to speak about a new book at least once or twice a year. These conversations made a deep impression on me, beginning with their tone; I was struck by the gentleness of Didi-Huberman’s voice, the thoughtfulness of his diction, even the potency of his silences — “refuges of intensity,” as Veinstein said when they spoke about Blancs soucis, whose very title is drawn from a line by Mallarmé. Didi-Huberman clearly set great store by Veinstein’s status as a poet, and his responses to the latter’s questions already emanated a quiet poetic charge that I would find again in the books, once I allowed myself a proper look.

And looking was largely what they spoke about: the world itself through Didi-Huberman’s eyes, but more especially the ways in which literature, and poetry in particular, enabled him to articulate his looking. The lines of poetry that abound in his texts, he told Veinstein at one point, are not so much citations as incitations, constantly challenging him to refresh his perspective and recast his writing. Likewise, the montage of images in his books is indissociable from the work of phrasing embodied most intensely in poetry. It is consequently possible, even essential, to see Uprisings, the current exhibition curated by Didi-Huberman at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and organized around the theme of collective emotion and revolt, as a direct extension of the talk published here, “Poetic uprisings,” which finds him back in the company of poets and reflecting further on his own creative and critical practice. If I felt compelled to translate it for any number of reasons, I mainly felt comfortable doing so to the extent that it echoes, both in style and substance, the episodes of Du jour au lendemain that had provided my own point of entry into Didi-Huberman’s work. — Samuel Martin


Poetic uprisings (poetry, knowledge, imagination) 

Poets, specialists in poetry, have invited me to speak to them, with them.[1] I’m extremely touched, and at the same time at a loss. What to say? And above all, how to say it? I’m trying to imagine the implicit request behind this invitation. Am I being asked — as an “essayist,” a man of history, of learning, of theory — to tell the story of my experience with poetry? To tell even that part of my life would take far too long. In an effort to be brief, I’m going to scatter a few stones (this, already, in recollection of the Piedras sueltas, poems by Octavio Paz read during adolescence), laying out seven lapidary points, each of them subject to being questioned, developed, and deepened in our exchange. And in doing so, I won’t refrain from the simple pleasure of (re)citing several fragments of poems long cherished.

Zero: the poem far more than the novel. I struggled considerably with the form of the novel, as with that of theatre (even in verse). As a child, I understood almost nothing of the classic plays taught at school, and still less of the thousand characters and convolutions of War and Peace. For a long time, I thought that literature was far too complicated for me. I therefore began by reading simpler texts, scientific and then philosophical texts. My initiation to poetry came late and was certainly steeped in philosophy: Mallarmé first of all, but after and according to Hegel, via — as I well remember — Jean Hyppolite’s article on Un coup de dés, which he said he imagined as “Hegel’s Logic calling itself into question.”[2]

One: the poem as a gift of thought-phrases. Phrased thoughts, thoughts in rhyme or rhythm. For instance, I can get the impression of touching the most intense form of the dialectic from three lines of Mallarmé copied out almost at random:

I shall lap at the unguent your lashes cry,
To see if it gives to the heart you smote
The impassiveness of stones and sky.[3]

Dialectics, in effect: in the first line, it is a question of collecting ardently on one’s tongue (mucous membrane of sensual love, amorous organ of poetic language) the salt of the loved one’s tears, in the act of two bodies struggling together, bound by some common pain or passion. In the second line, it is a question of devising an experiment “to see,” and to see what? — not just “what that gives,” but at the same time the gift concluded in and through that common pain. In the third line, the poem reveals itself to be that gift of linguistic tongue (spiritual body, organ of thought), having attained the “impassiveness” of absolute things, those things that are absolutely (and not personally) beautiful. The dialectic of the poem, its act of thought, its fundamental knowledge: transforming our pain, your emotion, my gaze, into its impersonal splendor, by which I mean the detached, crystalline, monadic splendor — and yet simultaneous complexity — of a glimpse [une aperçue][4] phrased in writing.

Two: the poem as a gift of apparition-approaches. Why is it that things, beings, spring forth more clearly, appear more clearly in a poem? Whatever the case, at the time when I was attempting to describe the hysterical women of the Salpêtrière Hospital, I went so far as to cite without quotation marks, in order to make the women spring forth more clearly for my reader, the following passage from Lautréamont: 

There goes the mad woman dancing by, vaguely recollecting something. The children follow her, hurling stones as though she were a blackbird. She brandishes a stick and makes as if to chase them before continuing on. She’s lost a shoe along the way, and doesn’t notice. Long spider legs twist around her neck; they are, in fact, her hair. Her face no longer resembles that of a human, and she cackles with laughter like a hyena. She lets slip tatters of sentences, in which, were they stitched back together, very few would find a clear meaning. Her dress, torn in several places, moves jerkily around her bony mud-covered legs. She drifts onward like a poplar leaf, carried away by the whirling of her unconscious mind, herself, her youth, her illusions and former happiness, which she sees once more through the mists of an intelligence in ruins.[5]

(To give an indication of my own approach, it was enough for me to add to the sentence “The children follow her, hurling stones as though she were a blackbird” a phrase referring to Charcot and his assistants: “The men follow her with their eyes …” — as though it were a question of a work of art.)

Three: the poem as a gift of seeing-words. Taken separately, no doubt words are blind. But certain ways of combining them, certain expressions to make them take a stand, certain phrases, in short, become capable of sight. It’s not the French word pan by itself that makes us see something in Vermeer’s painting through Marcel Proust’s text, or the word rigole by itself that makes us see something in Rembrandt’s painting through Jean Genet’s text, but rather the particular rhythmical montage of language that these words come to articulate at the right moments. Having understood fairly quickly that looking wasn’t simply an optical affair, since one also looks with phrases, I have based all of my efforts, all of my approaches (historical or philosophical) to the image, on a heuristics of theoretical and descriptive language, constantly playing with the literary conventions within which, ever since the ekphrasis of antiquity, discourses on art have too often confined themselves.

I have thus read and reread the famous letters from 1871 in which Arthur Rimbaud says over and over that in poetry, it is a matter of “finding a language [in order to] be a seer, […] to make oneself a seer, […] to turn into a seer,” and to arrive — “one day, I hope” — at what he refers to bluntly as an “objective poetry.” For years, I didn’t begin a single one of my texts without having read something by Charles Baudelaire beforehand. It wasn’t a question of citing poems in epigraphs the way that one adds a cherry to the cake of philosophical thought; it was a question of looking at an image with the words of a poet whom that image, remarkably, seemed to me to be summoning. Given various current practices in art history or criticism, I could only refer modestly to my efforts as “fables.” Hence, in order to phrase my act of looking at the ash imprints invented by Claudio Parmiggiani, I had to “follow with my language” — the way one “follows with one’s eyes” — phrases found in Lucretius (the man who had the audacity, all but unique in the Western world, to lay out an entire philosophical system in the form of a single — albeit gigantic — poem), Mallarmé once more, Rilke, Paul Celan, and José Ángel Valente:

Watch carefully whenever shafts of streaming sunlight are allowed to penetrate a darkened room. You will observe many minute particles mingling in many ways in every part of the space illuminated by the rays and, as though engaged in ceaseless combat, warring and fighting by squadrons with never a pause, agitated by frequent unions and disunions. You can obtain from this spectacle a conception of the perpetual restless movement of the primary elements in the vast void […] Such commotion also implies the existence of movements of matter that are secret and imperceptible.[6

Nothing more, breath remaining, end of speech and gesture joined.[7]

The existence of the terrible in every particle of the air. You breathe it in as part of something transparent; but within you it precipitates, hardens, acquires angular, geometrical forms in among your organs […] And within you there is scarcely any room; and it almost calms you, to think that it is impossible for anything of any great size to abide in those cramped confines […] But outside, outside there is no end to it; and when it rises out there, it fills up inside you as well […] in the capillaries, sucked as if up a tube into the furthermost branches of your infinitely ramified being. There it arises, there it passes over you, rising higher than your breath, to which you have fled as if to your final resting place.[8]

Great, gray,
like everything lost, near
sister shape.[9]

It wasn’t you, it was your remains. […]
Your body wasn’t you,
what survived in the end
was transparency.[10]

Four: the poem as a gift of desire-memories. Quite simply because the rhythm of the phrases is imprinted with repetitions and memories, and overflows with differences and desires. I read and reread every poem (or nearly) the way I watch the Ninfa of Aby Warburg pass through the widest variety of images from antiquity and modernity, or the way I endlessly reread Charles Baudelaire’s “À une passante”: as coming from very far away, bearing memories, and yet ungraspable, and thus bearing desires away, and thus yet to come. Hence the importance of montage — of de- and re-montage — as a formal technique for juxtaposing heterogeneous spaces and temporalities. I’m not surprised to read in a recent text by Christian Prigent, a great poet of desire, the following words concerning the memorial technique of writing:

Extraction and recycling require techniques. Each text has its own. A work is the product of a kind of formal bricolage, determined and unending. Cut-up is one such technique. Except that it is neither solely nor primarily a technique: it is a principle (ethical and political more so than aesthetic). It invites you, primo, to recognize that to write is to work with a signifying material always-already constituted; and deuzio, to cut into the “old lines” [an allusion to William Burroughs] in order to disassemble the material, transform it, and reassemble it another way, from a simultaneously playful and critical perspective.[11]

Five: the poem as a gift of perception-knowledge. All of the history and theory of images from which I’ve learned the most — I’m talking principally about the work of Aby Warburg, Walter Benjamin, and Georges Bataille — proceeds directly from a poetic notion of the imagination as the generator of a fundamental knowledge, and not merely as a “fantasy” of the tiny creative I. This is the imagination as Goethe understood it, between compositions of versified language and collections of pebbles intended for grasping the meaning of Urphänomen (some two centuries, then, before Emmanuel Hocquard, in his Théorie des tables, came to label himself a “translator of pebbles”). It is also, more or less, the imagination as Baudelaire envisaged it, a “near-divine faculty that perceives first of all, outside of the [usual] philosophical methods, the secret and intimate relations between things, the correspondences and analogies.” It is, finally, the imagination as Benjamin invokes it, when he opens the field of knowledge in order to “read what has never been written.” If there is a “reading prior to all language,” as Benjamin proposes, then there is doubtless a poetry of pebbles, of stars, of bark — of images, no less.

Six: the poem as a gift of anguish-gestures. Here is a kind of poetry. I transcribe it, and yet it was written by no one:

Sudden exhaustion. Slowly I bent down.
Unknown presence, tears flowed
To see, in my memory, bending over my weariness,
Her tender face
As she had been on that first night.
A mad desire to throw myself into her arms.
Existence and affection living on in me,
And certainty furthermore,
Throbbing like a physical pain
Of a void that had destroyed that existence.
I struggled to bear the ache of that contradiction.
To these pangs, cruel though they were,
I clung with all my strength
Along a supernatural, inhuman channel,
Like a furrow, two-fold and mysterious.

This is a cut-up from a famous section of the Recherche du temps perdu,[12] when the narrator, who one evening is bending wearily over his boots, feels the image of his grandmother — his dead grandmother — rising toward him, in the moment when she had bent over him in turn. By restoring this episode of memory as a consonance of bodily movements, Marcel Proust invites us to reflect on this extended “bending,” to reflect, consequently, on what a poetic history of human gestures might look like, between pathos and action, struggle and desire, the despondency of grief and the outpouring of love, etc. It is precisely this history that Aby Warburg sketched out in his atlas of images, Mnemosyne, a collection of visual rhymes conceived as a journey — problematized, temporalized — through what he called the “formulas of pathos,” or Pathosformeln (at the same time that Ernst Robert Curtius was envisaging the history of literature through the lens of the relatively similar notion of Toposformeln). I am not surprised that it was a poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who best captured the affective dance of the bodies he so loved to film.

Seventh and final scattered stone: the poem as a gift of gentleness in revolt. A thread joining Rimbaud’s “Letters of a Seer” — in which one finds, for example, a “Parisian War Song” in homage to the Paris Commune — and Pasolini’s Corsair Writings, which, as near as can be to the demands of Brecht (author, in his Kriegsfibel, of lyric poems placed alongside war documents, which he called “photo-epigrams”), Benjamin, or Mayakovsky, are political interventions and journalistic reports calling for revolt in the name of gentleness, as one could already see in 1963 in the extraordinary poetic and political montage of La Rabbia. Thus words and images come together, work together, to make our thoughts rise up in what you might call a gesture of unarmed insurrection, an insurrection through bursts of language and vision. An insurrection borne in all popular poetry — the cante jondo of the Andalusian Gypsies, for instance — by the rhythmic beating of lament as it, too, rises up:

Not knowing it, I trampled
a flower upon her grave,
from the flower came an ¡ay!
that pierced me through the soul. 

1. I referred to the draft of this text during a public discussion that was part of the “Entretiens de la revue Po&sie,” with Michel Deguy, Muriel Pic, Martin Rueff, and Laurent Zimmermann, on December 8, 2012, at the Maison de l’Amérique Latine. [The original French text was published in Po&sie, no. 143 (2013): 153–57. — SM]

2. Jean Hyppolite, “Le coup de dés de Stéphane Mallarmé et le message” (1958), in Figures de la pensée philosophique, vol. 2 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1971), 878. [All translations from the French are my own. SM]

3. Stéphane Mallarmé, “Tristesse d’été” (1864), in Œuvres completes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), 37.

4. [Didi-Huberman has spoken elsewhere about his preference for this unorthodox usage; casting the word “glimpse” as a feminine noun (une aperçue) rather than a masculine one (un aperçu) allows him, he says, to better convey the elusiveness of the fleeting apparitions most memorably exemplified by the woman in Baudelaire’s poem “À une passante,” mentioned later in this text. — SM]

5. Comte de Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror (1870), in Œuvres complètes, ed. Pierre-Olivier Walzer (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), 136–37.

6. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. Martin Ferguson Smith (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), 38.

7. Mallarmé, “Igitur” (1869), Œuvres complètes, 434.

8. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1904–1910), trans. Michael Hulse (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), 48.

9. Paul Celan, “Alchemical” (1961), in Corona: Selected Poems of Paul Celan, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Barrytown: Station Hill, 2013), 61.

10. José Ángel Valente, “Death and Resurrection,” in Landscape with Yellow Birds: Selected Poems by José Ángel Valente, trans. Thomas Christensen (Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, 2013), 173.

11. Christian Prigent, L’archive e(s)t l’œuvre e(s)t l’archive (Paris-Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe: Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, 2012), 16.

12. Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu — Sodome et Gomorrhe (1922), ed. Pierre Clarac and André Ferré (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 755–59.