Presentation to the Cambridge Prosody Research Group
24 January 2007
Introduction to Henri Meschonnic – For a Poetics of Rhythm
(N.B. The handout mentioned in this talk has not been reproduceable on the blog. Otherwise have kept this presentation in its original format)
1. Henri Meschonnic
Born in France in 1932 into an émigré Jewish family from Russia, Henri Meschonnic is Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the University of Paris VIII, Vincennes. His intellectual development came out of the debates in France in the 1960s and 70s concerning literary theory as it was renovated by the re-discovery of the Russian Formalists, and in the context of New Critical and Structuralist literary theory. While many of the key players in those debates later turned away from an attempt to develop a theory of literature (Todorov towards ethics, for example, and Kristeva towards psychoanalysis). Meschonnic has continued to make poetics and the theory of literature the point of departure for all his later thinking.
In addition to his career as a professional linguist (including the compilation of a number of dictionaries and scholarly works on the French language), Meschonnic is a renowned translator of the Old Testament (from which work, early in his career, he developed his theory of rhythm), as well as being a prolific poet and essayist. He is a regular contributor to the Forom des langues du monde, which has been held annually in Toulouse since 1993.
2. The areas of Meschonnic’s work
It seems to me that, for the purposes of a general introduction to his work and ideas, it would be useful to consider his oeuvre in two distinct ways: in terms of the discrete ‘areas’ of his work; and then in terms of the theoretical thinking that unites them in one body, Meschonnic’s ‘life-work’; a term that is very important to him, not least because he begins with all the strands already together at the beginning of the 1970s.
1. Linguist: Meschonnic was employed at Paris VIII as a professional linguist and spent a great deal of his time working as a complier of dictionaries and as a scholar of the French language and its study. His first publication, as co-editor, the Dictionnaire du français contemporain (A Dictionary of Contemporary French) from 1967, belongs to this work, for example. Given the inter-disciplinary nature of almost everything else he has done this might seem strange, but he has used his academic position as a springboard for a radical critique of linguistic’s basis in structuralism. It might also be worth mentioning something about Meschonnic’s work habits here. He was famous for his seminars in which he developed ideas with students and collaborators, often leading to collective publication. His Critique de la théorie critique, Langage et histoire (Critique of Critical Theory: Language and History), for example, is a work that has its origins in this seminar. A significant feature of the working methods in his seminar was his so-called Talmudic method, and the connexion that this has with his theory of rhythm as it has been developed through his own conceptualisation of the Mikra. Much of this work is still to be published, including an extensive critique of Foucault.
2. Poetician: I have anglicised the French term here, because it is very important for Meschonnic that the kind of thinking that he is engaged in is a poème or passion de la pensée, that is, a specific kind of thinking related to the activity that is unique to each poem and each situation, and whose most obvious characteristic is ‘the continuous movement of signifiance [see below] constructed by the historical activity of the subject’ (Gabriella Bedetti, ‘Henri Meschonic: Rhythm as Pure Historicity’ New Literary History, 23, 2 (Spring, 1992), p.431, pp.431-450). As we will see, this means that it is not possible to make a clear distinction between his work as theoretician and poet. I will deal with most of the specific terms he employs in a little while, but here I should define briefly at least one of his master terms: critique. For Meschonnic, critique is the historicity of theory (see CR), and as such it is both inherently a critique of the sign, which is in turn a critique of what he calls, after Horkheimer, traditional theory. Critique, then, is what refuses mastery, the status quo, and the maintenance of order; it is that which constitutes an adventure into the unknown, the unfinished, the unreachable, and therefore a movement towards knowledge, rather than the description of a knowledge. Also of significance here is the insistence with which Meschonnic distinguishes critique from polemic. For him polemic is the practice that stems from the Sophists (and Socrates, interestingly), an attempt to silence or subdue an opponent, rather than the opening up to thought that critique implies, and which his Talmudic seminar, in particular, embodies.
3. Translator: Meschonnic’s first volume of Biblical translations, Les Cinq Rouleaux (The Five Scrolls – comprising The Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Proverbs and Esther) came out the same year as his first work of poetics, Pour la poétique, essai (For Poetics), 1970. While he kept producing new volumes of poetics throughout the 1970s, almost no new Biblical translations came out for several decades, except for the very small Jona et le signifiant errant (Jonah and the Wandering Signifier – which includes a translation of Jonah), published in 1981. However, since 2001 Meschonnic has published a further four volumes of translations (The Psalms, Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus). Although the bulk of this work is late in coming within the scheme of Meschonnic’s career, it was the experience of this early translation work on Les Cinq Rouleaux which provided the real basis of his later work on the theory of rhythm. More on that in a bit.
4. Poet: As we have already seen, Meschonnic insists on a practical-theoretical continuity between the activity of writing poetry and theoretical and critical thought, which is not to say that he believes that poets should dispense with theory on the grounds that poetry is autonomous and self-regulating. On the contrary, Meschonnic considers this attitude to constitute a false metaphysics of poetry, rather than what he would call a specific epistemology of writing. Poetics begins with the poem, it doesn’t end there. Meschonnic’s poetry itself aims to be an oral poetics in the sense that he gives this term (i.e. neither of the order of the textual or the spoken, but at the site where these two are inextricably linked in textual and performative embodiment, itself a form of critique of thought). Dédicaces Proverbes (Dedications Proverbs), his first collection of poems, published in 1972, won immediate recognition for its rejection of some of the formal features associated with Symbolism, and more especially for its use of oral forms of literature including proverbs, fairy tales and so on. Another prize-winning collection was Voyageurs de la voix (Voyagers of the Voice), 1986, which, as the title suggests, relates to Meschonnic’s conviction that epic, with its close etymological connexion to voice, is present in all genuine poetry as its fundamental historicity; and which also suggests the fundamental relation of the subject in the poem to history and to society in an ongoing adventure into the unknown. Indeed his general critique of all European poetry in the last 150 years is partly what he considers to be its bias towards the lyrical, a tendency he traces to the Romantic confusion of the subject with the individual.
3. Key Critical Ideas
Discourse and Poetics
Meschonnic has pioneered a critique of what he calls the ‘theory of the sign’ (more narrowly, structuralist theory), which he claims imposes a form of universalism or false totality, which via the dualisms (form-content, nature-culture, word-thing, etc., all on the model of signifier-signified) of ‘traditional theory’, which he uses in the sense given the term by Horkheimer, prevents the emergence of the new, or the utopian, in favour of the status quo and the maintenance of order.
Implicit in this critique is a theory of literature and a theory of value. A literary value or element is constituted in the role it plays as a unit of the system of a literary work, ‘to the extent that the work constitutes itself through certain differences. These differences may relate to phonemes, words, characters, objects, places, scenes, etc. There is no value in the pure sense, but only in the interior of a system’ (PPI, 275-6). Hence, Meshonnic moves from a consideration of langue (grammar and linguistics as they have been constituted) in favour of a consideration of discours, where language is continually being created anew within each and every subject of discourse, what he calls the sujet d’énonciation to distinguish it from other kinds of subjects.
Poetry is essential to this critique of the sign, because it has always been its weak point. It is the ‘weak link’ in traditional theory because it is the form of discourse where it is most difficult to disguise what Meschonnic calls the signifiant (what might otherwise be called the ‘signifier’) by reducing it to the formality of the dual pair sign-sense. In other words, poetry is the form of discourse in which the subject of that discourse is most obviously in play. Poetry is the most embodied form of language, and hence maintains the trace of the body in its orality, its rhythm, and its historicity.
Historicity and the Subject
That which makes the new come into being as ‘individuation’ is just this subject. The subject is radically historicised (in Meschonnic’s sense, being both historical and trans-historical, both subject to the shaping discourses of the social, and the very medium in which those discourses are shaped); so, while Meschonnic’s position might be likened to some poststructuralist positions, he goes much further in arguing that the dialectic between the social and the individual operates fully in both directions, and in such a way that it can never be resolved. Equally, historicity doesn’t mean either the absolute break with the past, implied in many conceptions of the contemporary, nor the pale historicism that would make everything simply a product of its time. Historicity, is properly speaking, then, the form of interaction between a subject and its situation (another important term for Meschonnic’s theory of literature).
Prosody and ‘Signifiance’
In the restricted sense prosody describes the suprasegmental ‘melody’ created by the alternation of syllables, but which is also inclusive of accent, intonation and other phonetic features.
However, in a wider, or more general, sense, prosody, for Meschonnic, is the consonantal-vocalic organisation of language by means of an internal system of similarities and differences (values). Thus it is not to be confused with metrics, which is the study of what can be measured and repeated in language (e.g. numbers of syllables, accents, etc.), although clearly prosody and metre interact in that metre constitutes a possible constituent of prosody.
Signifiance, which he prefers in the form of this neologism in English, is for Meschonnic opposed to the still dualistic theories of thinkers such as Riffaterre and Kristeva. Instead of thinking of the signifier as a material ‘carrier’ of meaning, signifiance is the activity of meaning coming into being itself; it is related then to the present participle of the verb ‘to signify’. Signifiance is inherently multiple and unfinished, and constitutes the activity of the subject in the production of discourse. Signifiance, then, is neither ‘meaning’ nor ‘significance’ in the usual sense, however, but rather ‘the specific production of elements that contribute to both meaning and signification without their knowing it, for the sign does not take them into account. These elements are the semantics of rhythm and of prosody, their paradigms. They include pausal or positional effects, or conflicts between syntax and meter’ (In 'Interview: Henri Meschonnic', p. 106) The theory of rhythm (see below) is intended to demonstrate how these apparently different levels of language interact to produce discourse.
The Theory of Rhythm
There are two essential strands to Meschonnic’s theory of rhythm. On the one hand he experienced a basic theoretical problem in his first Biblical translations (Les Cinq Rouleaux); how to translate a text that is neither prose nor verse, but which is clearly rhythmically marked? His solution was to translate the text along the structure of the cantillation marks in the original Hebrew texts, and so lay bare the performative aspects of this text, what he calls the Mikra, which is usually referred to as the Tanakh, the three-part division of the Hebrew Bible into the Torah, the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim. The Mikra is the name for the Tanakh insofar as it represents the act of reading the texts collectively in the Rabbinical schools. Unlike its Latin equivalent scriptus (‘that which is written’), the Mikra makes no distinction between writing and performing, the written, and the oral. One element of Meschonnic’s theory of rhythm is the attempt to theorise this textual condition, a conceptualisation of textuality that refuses the occidental dualism of the written and the spoken, by introducing a third term, the oral, which is the bodily, rhythmic, element in writing (une parole écriture).
The second strand of Meschonnic’s theory comes from his reading of Emile Benveniste’s essay ‘The Notion of "Rhythm" in its Linguistic Expression’ in his Problems in General Linguistics. In that essay Benveniste uncovers the falsity of commonplace theories of rhythm that derive its meaning from a Greek verb ρειν (‘to flow’) that gave rise to the abstract noun ρυθμος on the model of the repetitive breaking of waves onto the shore. On the contrary, Benveniste argued, careful textual analysis reveals that the origin of the term is really in a word meaning ‘form in the instant that it is assumed by what is moving, mobile and fluid, the form of that which does not have organic consistency; it fits the pattern of a fluid element, of a letter arbitrarily shaped, of a robe which one arranges at one’s will, of a particular state of character or mood. It is the form as improvised, momentary, changeable’ (Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (UMP: Coral Gables, 1971), pp.285-6). Meschonnic takes up this idea and extends its significance to a major critique of all theories of the sign as the basis for a science of language in favour of a theory of discourse. Meschonnic thus defines ‘rhythm’ as that which ‘governs meaning’ as ‘the continuous movement of signifiance constructed by the historical activity of a subject’. And ‘rhythm in language [is] the organization of marks by which linguistic signifieds (especially in the case of oral communication) produce a special semantic meaning’; signifiance, which is to say ‘the values proper to a discourse and only one’ (Critique du rythme, p. 216).
A clear problem here is how to develop a system of reading texts that demonstrates this essential individuation in all language, and especially in poetry. I will discuss Meschonnic’s system of scansion very briefly below.
The Poetics and Politics of Translation
Meschonnic believes that translation, and in particular, the translation of the Bible, provides a very subtle register of the degree to which the theory of the sign is trapped in the ideology of traditional theory. On the one hand he describes the Jews as having a very special relation in the history of Europe, because of their function as the Chosen People of the Old Testament. Just as Christianity reduces the Old Testament, as prophecy, to a ‘sign’, or signifier, of the New Covenant (and hence establishes one ideological version of the history of the sign), so the Jew, in European history, is aligned with the poem, as this ideology’s weak link. The poem, then, is the Jew of the sign, that material, embodied existence that sticks like a thorn into the side of ideology. Just as historical Christianity has failed to reduce the Jews to the simple condition of metaphor, so the poem continues to survive as the challenge of the subject and history to the status quo and the maintenance of order.
Ironically, then, Meschonnic sees his Bible translations as being the greatest expression of what is ‘experimental’ in his poetry and in his poetics, in particular due to its denial of the dualisms of written-spoken and prose-poetry.
4. Meschonnic’s system of scansion
In developing his system of scansion, Meschonnic has sought to make it possible to describe the multiplicity of performative possibilities in texts. Consequently, unlike in most traditional systems of scansion, he doesn’t so much provide a reading, but rather a method able to account for all possible readings or performances. As far as French verse is concerned, he is also innovative in that he marks both syllable position and accent together in the same system, what he calls a rhythmic as well as a metrical notation.
When Donald Wesling reviewed Critique du rythme for Eidos: The International Prosody Bulletin he noted that while Meschonnic had demonstrated the need for a critique of rhythm he hadn’t provided a method. The lack of a translation of Meschonnic into English is a problem here, but as is usual for Meschonnic, many of the observations in the book came out of his extensive two-volume study Écrire Hugo, which appeared as Pour la poétique IV in 1976. Here he pioneered the system of scansion that he had already used to great effect in his study of Baudelaire’s ‘Chant d’automne’ in Une parole écriture, Pour la poétique III, 1973.
This (see handout) example of scansion from a single line of Racine comes from Critique du rythme (pp.252-3) where Meschonnic critiques an existing reading by Matila Ghyka as essentially an artificial and fictional reading of metrical feet:
L’éclat de mon nom même augmente mon supplice
(The honour of my name itself intensifies my torment)
Meschonnic’s rhythmical analysis, on the other hand looks like this
L’éclat de mon nom même augmente mon supplice
In this example Meschonnic overlays Ghyka’s quantitative analysis with his qualitative rhythmic analysis. He doesn’t deny the quantitative aspects of Racine’s metrics (just as he accepts the existence of metricality in much, if not most verse), but he wishes to show that rhythmic notation can be a far more productive and even empirical form of methodology. Meschonnic no longer considers French verse in terms of a fixed or unfixed number of syllables, but also in terms of a hierarchy of accents and contrasts. Over a short syllable the (/) denotes consonant attack and alliteration, whereas the same mark (/) over a long syllable denotes the fact that it is counteraccented: (//) therefore denotes a subsequent counteraccented syllable and so on.
In the example there is no ‘measure’ that can account for what Meschonnic calls the le couplage vocalique (vowel couplings) in ‘mon’ and ‘nom’ or the consonant couplings with ‘même’. They are all part of what Meschonnic calls a paradigmatic series. ‘L’éclat’ couples ‘l’ and ‘supplice’ ‘s’, but ‘mon supplice’ is marked three times because this second appearance on ‘mon’ continues the sequence found in ‘mon nom ‘même’. In this system of scansion it doesn’t matter therefore that a particular series are necessarily all related together, but only that they take part in an overall system or network that operates across the line or unit considered.
Another interesting feature of this scansion is the double marking of the fifth syllable ‘nom’: because this occurs just before the caesura it creates a syntactic-metrical tension that produces a possible counteraccent on the metrically marked sixth syllable. The double marking is intended to show that the fifth syllable can be read as accented or not depending on the manner of performance.
So far all but the third, seventh and ninth syllables are marked. However, the third and ninth are related through the dentals ‘t’ and ‘d’, and the seventh by the form of liaison that places the initial syllable of ‘augmente’ between an ‘m’ at the end of the syllable that continues one marked series and a ‘g’ that forms an echo of the ‘k’ of ‘éclat’. Consequently, Meschonnic’s method of reading involves an organization-saturation that attempts to account for all the features present in any given sequence.
Éluard’s ‘La vie immédiate’
Although there is not really the time available here it would have been very useful to look at a longer sequence to demonstrate how this rhythmic analysis starts to interact with the interpretation of texts at higher levels of structuration, and therefore demonstrate how ‘meaning’ is produced by rhythm in Meschonnic’s theory. One example Meschonnic gives that you might wish to follow up is in Une parole écriture where he analyses what he calls the form-sense of Paul Éluard’s collection ‘La vie immédiate’ (where form-sense implies the way in which all elements in the collection cohere as a single system of writing). The aim is to demonstrate the situation of the writing and exactly how it produces meaning, i.e. its mode or manner of meaning. In other words, Meschonnic wishes to show the historical context of a writing, but also the way that it is transmitted through the various readings or receptions that it subsequently enables. To read Éluard today means to situate his work and the man as a writer, and therefore treating his work as a whole (see his analysis of Mallarmé for example in ‘Mallarmé au-delà du silence’), and not just selections. Obviously this is beyond the scope of today’s presentation.
In his analysis he shows how rhetoric and even grammar itself can be altered and deformed by the work of the historical subject in the text. So, in the analysis of this text by Éluard he shows how the writing constitutes a ‘correspondence, a system of relations interior to the work, … meaning given by forms, and there alone’ (PPIII, 182). Meschonnic describes the syntax of the work and then the functioning of nouns and verbs in the collection as a whole, before finally considering its prosody.
So, for example, at the level of ‘book’ the collection deals with love lost in the past and regained in the lived present through a new love. This is not meant to be a biographical description of a ‘real’ individual, but rather that lyrical organisation that produces a double structure of the ‘couple’ even in the text’s syntax and rhythm.
So, parataxis, coordination and nominal forms, for instance, dominate the writing in favour of subordination and verbal forms. He thus delineates a poetry of the verb from a poetry of the noun in a relation of active tension throughout the book. ‘The verb is here above all the poem in prose, the union of the couple, a conjunctive and subjective poetry. The noun is here the identification of existence and possession, the present lived not as time, but rather as substance, and separation’ (PPIII, 179). Furthermore ‘the presence of noun complements, quantitatively transposing to the noun that which should pertain to their adjectival epithets … is the poetic force that creates a poetry of dependence and of possession, a language of "of-ness"’ (179) Meschonnic finds in the collection an enduring series where ‘de’ is transformed into être’ and ‘à’ into ‘a’: so that, for instance, ‘lanterne à tête de fourmi’ (a lamp with a head like an ant) becomes ‘la lanterne a une tête de fourmi’ (the lamp with an ant’s head), or ‘la neige de ses rires’ (the snow of her laughter) becomes ‘ses rires sont de la neige’ (her laughter is of snow), thus conflating existence and possession.
From this analysis, Meschonnic draws out some surprising conclusions. For example, that in these love poems, woman, possession and the past are all linked by a form of poetic nomination that seeks to fix being and time themselves as forms of possession. Meschonnic is careful to distinguish this sort of interpretation from any kind of mimetic reading of syntax and rhythm, or from any kind of structuralist production of polarities. Instead, his reading attempts to demonstrate how the differences in the writing are produced solely by an internal organisation of pluralities, an ensemble of interlinking contradictions, that in this case is, nevertheless dominated by the language-solitude of Éluard’s poetry.
I am aware that this is an extremely unsatisfactory account of Meschonnic’s interpretive procedures, but given the length and technical complexity of most of the examples he gives (and that fact that he tends to look at large bodies of work all together), this indication of where else to look is perhaps the best that I can do for now by way of an introduction.