Yves Bonnefoy was widely recognized in his native France as one of the predominant poets of the latter half of the 20th century. He was also a remarkable essayist, publishing scores of short, taut book-length essays on a variety of subjects.
Poetry and Photography is his inquiry into the relationship between image and reality and the changes that photography wrought to our perception of the world. Bonnefoy shows himself to be both philosophically acute and a vivid stylist, exploring these central questions through theory and a close reading of a story by Maupassant.
We are very pleased to present the book’s first two sections. Poetry and Photography is released in April by Seagull Books. Find out more here.
“Poetry and Photography: Daguerre, Mallarmé, Maupassant and the Surrealists”—this was the theme I initially set myself, but when I began to put the different parts of the argument together, it soon became clear to me that I had first to lay out the hypotheses, few in number, that will underpin the central idea. This is what I am going to do first, reducing correspondingly the space I would have devoted to Mallarmé and Breton, but not that which I shall accord to Maupassant. The reasons for this will become evident.
This research I am beginning—on the impact of the earliest photography on the experience of the world and the conduct of existence in the nineteenth century and up to our own day—must necessarily also be a reflection on poetry, since the study of what I shall call “the photographic” enables us better to understand both how poetry has developed and the tasks that confront it. The kind of—historically unprecedented—act the photographer has accomplished, and continues to accomplish, in fact exerts its influence directly on what poetry is seeking to be. And poetry, in its turn, must therefore examine what that act is, and what it asks of, or imposes on, contemporary society. And it mustn’t hesitate to express its reservations, concerns or, indeed, its approval when presented with the diverse and perhaps contradictory forms which that activity has taken since its earliest times, in the days when Baudelaire’s intuitions were beginning to dispel the—once again so feverishly religious—illusions that had encumbered Romantic poetry.
But, first of all, these few preliminary remarks on poetry, the fundamental nature of which ought properly to be recalled, even if I can do so today only very summarily. Poetry is what evinces unease at the constructions erected over the centuries by conceptual thought, that thought which bases itself on aspects of the empirically given—from which it deduces laws—but not on the totality, the compactness which we nonetheless perceive spontaneously in things when we encounter them in the here and now of our lives. That kind of conceptual approach, which proceeds by choosing among those aspects—and, hence, simultaneously simplifies and generalizes— deprives the mind of recognizing, within what it perceives, the unity that is the way its various parts breathe together or, in other words, that quality which makes of it a particular, finite thing, even as it opens itself up to that other whole that is reality as such. And this is a blindness that also affects the self-consciousness of persons, who can no longer fully think their belonging to the being of the world. Poetry is the memory of that loss, an effort to re-establish the lost contact with that which is.
How poetry goes about achieving this task isn’t my subject today, though let me make one comment on what it is aiming to re-establish. This is a relation of persons to their environment that would provide the needs and intuitions of the body—as much as those of the mind—with their place in consciousness: a body that is both alive and destined to die. Freeing itself from the many systems that conceptual thinking is only too ready to build as a home for those who accept its simplified representations— churches, for example, armies, sets of values peculiar to commerce or industry—poetry’s role is to examine, in a critical or supportive spirit, the ways in which the men or women of our time combat the alienation they undergo.
These ways are many and varied, but they are unified, nonetheless, by a procedure they have in common. Conceptual thought develops within an overall idea of the world, within what I shall term a world-in-image, a schematic world, both underpinned and explicated by a certain use of language that congeals utterance into its categories and projects. And the persons stifled in this way often believe it sufficient, if they are to recover their difference, simply to work on the signifiers of that language “in image,” to appropriate them for their own standpoint, apportioning to the main figures this thinking offers them characteristics that ensue from what they are in their particular existences. For example, for the idea of a tree in general, they substitute the evocation of some tree that they love, this being brought to mind by certain of its aspects. This is to personalize the collective image. But we should beware here of the following danger: operating with the words of the grand image shared by all, this work on the part of the individual can only be the production, once again, of a similar schema; confinement again within just one image. And poetry has to be aware of this trap, into which it falls too easily, and has to learn, in order to expose it, to recognize its nature and characteristics.
What are these characteristics that distinguish the image from fully lived life? The first is that every image requires a support—wall or stone or canvas or paper, or at least the idea of such a support. And this is so because the support immediately means a delimitation, a framing, which suggests that the things and beings the image seems to evoke are situated in an authentic place, with its own space and even its own light. The frame confers a semblance of reality on the image, and it is from the frame that this illusion derives its capacity to endure beyond the moment of reverie. It confers credibility on it, but first and foremost it confers authority, at a level we might call ontological—the level at which decisions are made regarding what is and is not. From which it follows, indeed, that the usual complement of the frame, in the image that it renders credible, is a certain point among the figures which seems to provide the foundation for the being the image claims to possess. This is the case with Pharaoh’s daughter in Poussin’s Moses Saved from the River: she is a beautiful, standing figure, full of authority and the very centre, we might believe, of the harmonious proportions which present themselves as reality in the conception this picture has of it.
The fact remains that no image structure is complete reality. This schematic representation may gather up a great deal of the appearance of things, but, first, it inevitably leaves outside itself, for example, that which conceptualization suppresses and wishes to forget—namely, the finitude within what is, and the way of seeing the world and life of those who haven’t forgotten their own finitude. The image cannot express this inwardness of existing beings, which is, indeed, essentially temporal.
And it is a fact that in many images the hint of a level—their unconscious—peeps through, at which there is still an awareness of that limit, and the idea that a world exists outside those images. We even see them attempting to ward off this “outside” by heading off the encounter with it and striving to convince themselves that nothing in it will elude their idea of the real: that nothing in it will manifest that element of chance which is what they fear most. There is, in fact, no room in images for chance. What might seem to signify such a thing has been surreptitiously removed. The folds in the Virgin’s gown in an altarpiece, the cat that seems to be present by chance in an Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto are, in fact, the product of the needs, desires and fatalities inherent in the painter’s dream. There is no element of chance in the field of the image! This particular throw of the dice has truly abolished it. Yet chance exists, nonetheless, at the margins of the work in the daily existence of its creator, and, as a result, the image, however affirmative it may be, always has an underlying disquiet to it, which, we might surmise, may even be what lends some paintings their restless, fevered beauty.
And I shall now observe that this disquiet of images, this foreshadowing within them of the ineradicable reality of what remains outside was, more intensely than ever, the experience of some great artists of the Age of Enlightenment.
Why was this? Because this project of submitting the knowledge of the world and existence to reason was also a project of dismantling the myths that had built, explained and justified worlds without the aid of that reason. Yet, with myths disappeared also what enabled religion to exert its control over all the regions (even the most nocturnal ones) of reality and life, and which set thought at the edge—or almost—of the abyss, with a sense of vertigo or anxiety that the great art of the age was able to express; the dizzying sense that there was no longer any foundation for the moral values that had, up to that point, been buttressed by the divinity; and the sense that, henceforth, genuinely human responsibility would have to be assumed. This is what Leopardi and Goya experienced; it is what shows through in the works of Sade.
Then, in the Romantic period, the darkness simply grew and spread—and the vertigo with it— even if the poets of those years attempted to recover their poise by way of religion, with representations and forms of belief of their own private devising. This effort is what Keats and Hugo or Nerval have, more or less, in common, together with Novalis and Casper David Friedrich. It is not enough, however, to deliver Delacroix from his “lake of blood” obsession, as Baudelaire rightly saw: in vain would that tormented painter claim to be a follower of Apollo. Around 1840, everything was ready for the development of a more intense—and also more resolute—awareness of the vast ‘outside’ of the image: of non-being. A crystallization such as Stendhal expressed in 1822 in respect of love, perhaps seeking in that way to deflect attention.
And it was indeed in these same years of the middle of Baudelaire’s century that a crystallization occurred that was quite different from that of the thinking of the lover—or self-styled lover. The precondition was an event which, we should note, was immediately celebrated with astonishing—both secular and religious—solemnity. It was on 7 January 1839 at the French Academy of Sciences that François Arago announced to the world the invention of what would be termed the daguerreotype, a procedure by which representations of things from the world around us were permanently fixed on a support—in this particular case, a copper plate. Fixed! This was not yet, therefore, what photography would make possible. It was merely direct image-capture, affording no possibility of reproduction—that wouldn’t come for another ten years. But that is of little consequence. What constituted an event was that there was to be found on the copper plate a full, exact reproduction of what could previously only be met with in three-dimensional form. And hence the ‘outside’, the realm of perpetual change, has been ensnared and is going to remain here, immobilized, in this very singular new image.
Why is fixing so important? Why am I going so far as to say that this immobilization was as crucial an event as the transporting of external reality into the image? Because it is what enables things which might each merely be considered in itself and on its own to cohabit on a sustained basis with others captured in the same way and hence leave their plane of shifting, temporal existence and come to exist on the plane of images—that is to say, at the level where images assert their claims. We should note that seeing something at a point other than where it actually was wasn’t absolutely novel in Daguerre’s day. There had for many years been situations in which an “outside” had been captured without the intervention of an artist; the surface of the moon, as it could be seen through Galileo’s telescope, is one example. But the representations produced in that way weren’t immobilized in a frame; they couldn’t, therefore, compete with traditional images, which possessed such a frame and hence the power, as I have remarked, to suggest that the scene they showed had reality and being—indeed, a higher nature of being than our own. And now, with the daguerreotype and, shortly after it, the photograph, which were fixed and framed, these representations had slipped in among the images.
Now—and here, as I see it, is the important, indeed essential, element of the event hailed by Arago, who, like Galileo, was an astronomer—these new images take their place among the others only when they have in them something the old images knew nothing of and never wanted to know anything of: namely, chance—an element of chance that was, in this case, wholly unfettered and fully, rightfully itself.
Yves Jean Bonnefoy (1923 – 2016) was one of the pre-eminent French poets, translators, and essayists of his era. The author of around 100 books, he received numerous prizes and honors in his lifetime. Chris Turner is a writer and translator who lives in Birmingham, England. He has translated books for Seagull Books, Verso Books, and others.
Excerpt courtesy of Seagull Books. English translation © Chris Turner, 2017.
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