Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.




Chapter Ten—
The Being of Artworks

Roman Ingarden, the Polish pupil of Edmund Husserl, starts off his bestknown work, The Literary Work of Art, begun in 1927 and first published in 1931, with an arresting observation:

We find ourselves before a strange fact. Almost every day we deal with literary works. We read them, we are moved by them, they charm us or displease us, we evaluate them, we pass various judgments on them, conduct discussions on them, we write articles on individual works, we concern ourselves with their history, they are often almost like an atmosphere in which we live—one would think as a result that we knew the objects of these activities universally and exhaustively. And yet, if someone puts the question to us what a literary work actually is, then we must admit with a certain astonishment that we have no correct and satisfactory answer.[1]

It's true. We read them all the time, these books and parts of books that are offered to us as artworks. We do other things to them, too. We love them, hate them, ban them, abridge them, make them into movies. We study them, analyze them, "deconstruct" them, criticize them, write term papers about them. And yet if we stop for a moment and try to figure out what the them in all these phrases is, to what real object in the world the grammatical direct object of all these verbs actually corresponds, we're baffled. Everyone will agree right off that it's not the bound and printed sheets of paper, the "book" in the physical sense. Any book can exist in many different editions, and even two different copies of the same edition may well look like two very different stacks of bound and printed paper, two very different "things."


So what is a literary artwork? The question is more complicated than it might at first appear. When we say that the literary artwork is not the same as the physical book, we are getting at the general problem of writing. What is it we read when we read anything ? we're asking. Where does the work exist if it's not the sheets of paper with little black markings on them? Is it the little black markings? Is it the understanding (whatever that means) of those markings that we derive when we read them, and if so, does that mean the work ultimately exists in the mind of the reader and nowhere else?

If we ever succeed in answering these general questions about writing, however, we're still left with another set of unavoidable questions. The original question was what a literary artwork is. What we want to know is not only what any piece of writing is but also just what it is that distinguishes a piece of writing we consider to be "art" from a piece of writing we don't. What makes Jane Eyre different from an insurance policy? As soon as we start to think about it, we realize that we can't very well talk about only literary works of art. We need to ask what makes any work of art different from any other thing. What makes the Pietà different from a piece of marble lying undisturbed in a quarry? What makes a famous painting different from the empty stretch of wall right next to where it hangs in a museum? All these questions ultimately concern the being of artworks, the peculiar manner of their existence, and so the field of inquiry that they belong to can be described as the ontology of artworks.

Ingarden was not the first person to ask these questions about literary artworks, although he was probably the first to give them the kind of detailed attention we find in The Literary Work of Art . Credit for the initial discoveries that made possible the modern tradition Ingarden was working in goes to a few thinkers living in the eighteenth century. To start asking pointed questions about the being or essence of artworks, in what space they exist, how they are different from ordinary things that resemble them, it was necessary to assert that artworks do enjoy a different status from that of ordinary objects, and the way to assert this was to insist that the type of perception of which artworks are the object is qualitatively different from the type we use for ordinary objects. The thinker who is responsible for this latter assertion is the same one who is responsible for the eventual application of the word aesthetic to the field of artistic beauty: Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762).

In chapter 8 I mentioned Descartes and his ideal of clarity and mathematical rigor. As it happens, the term clear was complemented by an-


other term in Descartes, distinct. Clear meant simply evident, apparent to the mind; distinct meant precise, clear in all possible details. Since something needs to be clear before it can be distinct, distinct is a subcategory of clear. The two terms corresponded for Descartes to two faculties: perception and reason. Something can be clear to sense perception (that is, it can be clearly, vividly perceived) without being distinct. But only reason can grasp what is distinct since distinct ideas tend to be abstract, that is, the sort of thing that mere sense perception cannot apprehend.

Baumgarten followed a similar scheme, dividing knowledge into two "cognitive faculties." The inferior faculty is sensible knowledge, that is, knowledge that derives from the senses. The higher faculty is thought, or knowledge proper, which serves as the basis for scientific understanding. Since the inferior faculty is based on the senses, hence on feeling, Baumgarten used the term aesthetics (from a Greek word meaning "to feel") for the discipline that would investigate it. Logic was the field that treated the higher faculty. Baumgarten believed that fine art and poetry were the objects of sensible knowledge, and so they were naturally included under the science of aesthetics.[2]

Art objects were thus set off from at least certain other kinds of objects, in this case because the mode of perception directed toward them is different from that directed toward other objects. This line of thinking found its most thorough and forceful exposition in Kant. Kant had divided knowledge into three areas, which he treated in his three critiques. Ordinary scientific understanding, or theoretical knowledge, the faculty by which we apprehend and structure experience in the natural world, was the subject of Kant's first critique, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787). Then there is the power to know moral laws, the ability to decide that certain things are right and others wrong. It is practical in the sense that it has to do with freedom to act (praxis means "action"), and so the critique devoted to this type of knowledge is called the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). Finally, there is the faculty that allows us to make judgments of taste, that is, to judge that a thing is beautiful or sublime. It is the subject of Kant's third critique, the Critique of Judgment (1790).

Kant's treatises were called critiques because their purpose was to delineate clearly the jurisdiction of each area of knowledge by examining critically the untested assumptions that surround it. The idea was to establish through deductive proof the existence of certain a priori principles, that is, principles that preexist our use of them and that cannot


be objects of ordinary knowledge. A priori principles are universal and necessary. How can something as subjective as a judgment of taste possess universality and necessity? The answer, Kant says, is that our faculty of judgment, when it makes judgments of taste, is directed toward the subjective conditions of its own employment. This subjective factor is a priori because it is something that can be presupposed in everyone.

The essential point for our purposes here is that Kant set off something called judgment as a unique faculty with its own set of a priori principles, its own necessity and universality, and its own objects. If one faculty is different in its operation from the other, then the objects of one will certainly differ accordingly from the objects of the other. Thus objects of beauty take on their own mode of being, one that is distinct from the mode of being of ordinary objects.

Still, Kant was hardly elaborating anything we might call an ontology of artworks. The emphasis was in the wrong place for that, as it must be in an idealist philosophy. Kant was interested in delineating the faculty and demonstrating how it determined the object. He was not interested in the object and its ontology; for that we have to wait until the early twentieth century and the advent of Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl did not himself develop an ontology of art. In fact, he had almost nothing to say about art during his entire career. But he did inaugurate a new tradition in aesthetics. Husserl's first major work, the Logical Investigations, was published in two volumes in 1900 and 1901, and eight years later the first work in phenomenological aesthetics appeared. It was by one Waldemar Conrad, and it was called "Der ästhetische Gegenstand: Eine phänomenologische Studie" (The aesthetic object: A phenomenological study). Both author and article are now quite forgotten, except by the odd enthusiast of the history of phenomenology.[3]

I don't plan to discuss the Logical Investigations in any detail. The essential thing is what Conrad saw in them as preparing the way for his own work. Presuppositionless was a catchword of Husserlian phenomenology since Husserl was interested in arriving at the essence of thought by "bracketing" away all the presuppositions that constitute what he called the "natural attitude." By "natural attitude" he meant simply the naive attitude we bring to bear on our everyday encounters with our surroundings. Conrad decided that it might be clever to take the presuppositionless method and apply it to aesthetics. The idea was to describe the work of art presuppositionlessly, that is, in its pure immanence and without any of the naive notions that characterize ordinary perception.


Whether Conrad succeeded in doing this is not important. What is important is his focus on works of art, or aesthetic objects, as different from ordinary objects. They are ideal objects in the Husserlian sense, Conrad says, which we can constitute through fantasy but which have no actual attributes of existence, as objects in nature do.[4] Conrad then goes on to investigate three different types of art: music, verbal art (Wortkunst ), and spatial art (Raumkunst ). In each case he makes some preliminary remarks about the art form, gives a general analysis followed by a detailed analysis, and then discusses the difference between art objects of the type in question and objects in nature that are similar.

At the end of his long article he states his conclusions. He talks about the essence (Wesen ) of aesthetic objects as opposed to two other types of object: objects of nature and geometric objects. The heart of the matter seems to lie in the concept of dependence (Abhängigkeit ). Objects in nature are composed of a number of properties that exist in a relation of "lawful dependence" on each other. Objects in nature possess the character of "reality." Geometric objects, though not "real" like objects in nature, are similar to objects of nature in that their qualities, too, are dependent on each other. Aesthetic objects, however, are purely ideal objects and possess no character of reality. They have "intentional objectivity," that is, an objectivity that arises as the result of an intention of their creator. Their constituent properties exist in a relation not clearly defined by Conrad but clearly different from the relation of dependence we find among the constituent properties of objects of nature and geometric objects. Aesthetic objects are "realizable." This appears to mean that they have to be realized through an act of mind since they possess no character of reality. They belong not to actual space but to their own space and thus can be called objects without being things.[5]

Conrad's exposition is rudimentary and not very compelling. He never succeeds in giving a particularly sharp definition of aesthetic objects or, for that matter, in providing a truly phenomenological analysis of artworks. But he certainly pointed the discussion in the right direction and cleared the way for more sophisticated phenomenological discussions a few years later. These belong above all to Ingarden, whose formulations in The Literary Work of Art and later works show a true debt to the man he credits with being the first to work in the area of phenomenological aesthetics.[6]

Ingarden solved the problem of distinguishing between art objects and real objects partly by relying on Husserl and partly by departing from him. To begin with, Ingarden believed strongly in the objective


reality of the world, something that put him in direct opposition to the idealism of Husserlian phenomenology. His longest work, The Controversy over the Existence of the World (Der Streit um die Existenz der Welt ), is devoted to exploring this position. Art objects are what Ingarden calls purely intentional objects. The term is derived in part from Husserl, for whom all acts of consciousness are "intentional," which means that they are directed by the intention of the subject toward some object (whether or not that object is "real"). But Ingarden diverges from Husserl on the issue of intentional objects. For Ingarden, an intentional object is anything (real, imagined, created, ideal, abstract, concrete) that becomes the target of an intentional act of consciousness. Because of his belief in the objective reality of the world, however, he conceives of two types of intentional object. First there are also intentional objects . These are objects that are "ontically autonomous" (seinsautonom, or autonomous with respect to being), which is another way of saying that they are real, that they exist independently of the perceiving consciousness. They are "also" intentional because they become the object of someone's intentional act of consciousness by chance. Then there are purely intentional objects . These are objects that are "ontically heteronomous" (seinsheteronom), which means that they depend (heteronomous is the opposite of autonomous and thus means "dependent") for their existence precisely on the intentional act of consciousness whose object they are. Purely intentional objects can be further divided into two types: originally purely intentional objects, which exist in consciousness in the pure state in which they are conceived, and derived purely intentional objects, which must be constituted through the mediation of "meaning units" (a generic term that comprises words and any other media for the expression of meaning). Literary artworks are thus derived purely intentional objects . They are not ontically autonomous, which means that they do not exist apart from the intentional acts of consciousness that create them or those by which a perceiver experiences them, and they exist only by means of the words that make them up.[7]

Ingarden's descriptive analysis makes the literary artwork into a structure consisting of several different strata. There is a stratum of individual words, a stratum of words combined into meaningful units, a stratum of represented objects, and a stratum of something Ingarden calls schematized aspects. The idea is that the reader confronts various levels on which meaning is established, from the level of individual words to the more complicated levels where the reader constitutes and fills in whole states of being as they exist in the world of the literary work. Hence the


literary work exists in large part as a function of the reader's ability to make it real, to "concretize" it. A derived purely intentional object does not have independent existence and thus depends on the intentional acts of consciousness that make it real. This notion is what leads Ingarden to his crucial distinction between literary artwork and aesthetic object. The literary artwork is the thing that is constituted by the author. The aesthetic object is a kind of essential core of the literary artwork, and it depends for its existence on the constituting acts of both the author and the perceiver-reader.

I don't mean to insist on the details of Ingarden's aesthetics. I mention as many of them as I do for two reasons. The first is to show how far Ingarden went in probing the question of the existence of artworks and providing a set of terms designed to allow us to distinguish art objects from other kinds of objects. He has not had the last word on these issues, but he must be given credit for focusing serious attention on them. After all, how many writers before Ingarden's time would have thought of Investigations into the Ontology of Art as a title for a book?[8] The second reason is that relatively few American students of literature are familiar with Ingarden's books firsthand. The Literary Work of Art was not published in English translation until 1973, and before then only shorter writings by Ingarden were available in English. But everybody knows the work of René Wellek, the grandfather of comparative literature in the United States, who taught whole generations of scholars at Yale before Paul de Man and others like him came along to establish the powerful deconstructionist empire that eclipsed Wellek. Wellek, as it happens, is probably more responsible than anyone else for introducing Ingarden to the English-speaking world.

In 1942 Wellek published an article in the Southern Review called "The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art," in which he promised to help clarify what a literary work of art is and how it exists. In a footnote to the title of his essay he acknowledged first the Prague Linguistic Circle and then "the logical theories of Edmund Husserl and his Polish pupil Roman Ingarden" as sources for his ideas.[9] The literary work of art in Wellek's view is a "system of norms" (p. 745). A norm, in the sense that Wellek has in mind, is a sort of ideal goal we have an obligation to strive to fulfill. The term has its origin in ethics, although Wellek is careful to point out that his norms are not ethical. His notion is that a work of art implicitly contains a set of goals and that in any experience of the work the perceiver is in a sense obligated to realize these goals. "The structure of a work of art has the character of a 'duty


which I have to realize,' " Wellek says (p. 747). In other words, the content of the norms may not be ethical, but our interaction with them is since the nature of that interaction is defined in terms of ethical concepts like duty and obligation.

Wellek doesn't do much to help us conceptualize what the norms in a work are, but that isn't his purpose. His aim is to show that the act of perceiving an artwork is an act of recovery, or attempted recovery, by which we seek to fulfill the norms that inhere in that work. How do those norms exist? To answer that question, Wellek basically adopts the stratum analysis of Ingarden (although he doesn't mention Ingarden by name here), referring to "the sound-structure of a literary work of art," "the units of meaning based on the sentence patterns," and the "world of objects to which the meaning refers" (p. 746). In the next-to-last paragraph of his essay Wellek gives this definition: "The work of art, then, appears as an object of knowledge sui generis which has a special ontological status. It is neither real (like a statue) nor mental (like the experience of light or pain) nor ideal (like a triangle). It is a system of norms of ideal concepts which are intersubjective. They must be assumed to exist in collective ideology, changing with it, accessible only through individual mental experiences, based on the sound structure of its sentences" (p. 753).

Not many people would have paid much attention to an article hidden away in a literary journal if Wellek had let the matter rest there. But in 1949 he and Austin Warren published their Theory of Literature, a highly influential work that became a fundamental textbook for literary studies in the United States for more than a generation, and they included in it almost word for word Wellek's 1942 article. In the book it forms the bulk of a chapter called "The Analysis of the Literary Work of Art," so the ontological question is not highlighted in this title as it was in that of the journal article. But in one of the few departures from the article, Wellek names Ingarden in the text and devotes a full page to Husserl, phenomenology, and Ingarden's theory of the stratified structure of literary artworks.[10] And so it was that the question of aesthetic ontology passed into the mainstream of literary studies in American universities. I hesitate to say that this is the dominant theme of Wellek and Warren's book, but there is no doubt that it is featured prominently.

A number of professional philosophers on the American scene have written about aesthetic ontology in the twentieth century without necessarily calling it that. Stephen Pepper, in The Work of Art (1955), attempts to define what a work of art is and how it is different from an


ordinary object. George Dickie, in Art and the Aesthetic (1974), gives what he calls an "institutional definition" of artworks, one that locates the peculiar being of artworks in the act by which a certain community (which he calls "the artworld") confers on an object the status of artwork. Nelson Goodman, one of the most distinguished figures in American philosophy, wrote a book called Ways of Worldmaking (1978) in which he put a new twist on the standard question of aesthetic ontology by asking "When is art?" instead of "What is art?" And Arthur Danto, in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1981), approaches the problem of how to distinguish artworks from other things that represent but that are not artworks.[11]

Ontological questions in aesthetics have apparently been attractive to the "academy," as professional philosophers call it, in America. The line I have just mentioned, however, appears not to have had much impact on specifically literary studies. There is Wellek and his progeny on the one hand, and, on the other, there is a line that has been even more influential in recent years, one that also must claim succession, at least to a certain disputable extent, from Husserl and phenomenology. I'm referring to Heidegger and his various disciples and followers. I have no intention of giving a lengthy summary or analysis of Heidegger and his theories of poetry here. His disciples lovingly say that his theories resist paraphrase and description, anyway, because the master's writing operates on some preconscious realm of experience in the reader. His detractors say that there is nothing so very complicated in his theories and that he was simply a second-rate philosopher who wrote in a "poetic," "difficult" prose. Disciples and detractors can fight this one out for themselves. All I want to do is show something obvious, namely the connection in Heidegger's thought between poetry and being.

The central text by Heidegger on the subject is his essay "The Origin of the Work of Art," first written in 1935.[12] Heidegger's idea about artworks is that art has to do with truth. But Heidegger has redefined truth so that, instead of referring to the agreement between a thing and its concept, it now has to do with a kind of openness, or "unconcealedness of being."[13] Truth is a "mode of being of existence [Dasein ] ," says Heidegger in Being and Time .[14] But Dasein, which is sometimes translated as "existence" and sometimes left untranslated, is Heidegger's expression for man as a creature that understands Being. Truth, defined as openness, is more a relation between man (Dasein ) and Being than a metaphysical essence or an epistemological norm of some sort.

This brings us to Heidegger's definition of art. "All art is, as the


letting-happen of the advent of the truth of being as such [des Seienden als eines solchen ], in essence poetry."[15] The uninitiated reader may well not know what this statement means, but that doesn't really matter for my purposes. What matters is the very end of the sentence, where Heidegger uses the word poetry, because the simple sentence, without most of what comes between the subject and the predicate, reads, "All art is in essence poetry." What is poetry? First we need to know what language is. Just as he has redefined truth, Heidegger has also redefined language. Language is not simply a means of communication, of transmitting messages. It is something that "brings being as being [das Seiende als ein Seiendes —both these beings are used as nouns] first of all into the open."[16] Later, in the 1950s, Heidegger devoted much of his writing to language and poetry. At that time he grew fond of calling language the "house of Being" and using all sorts of mystical phrases to describe the way in which language brings about an opening, an unconcealing, an illumination of Being and world.[17]

Art, truth, language, and poetry are all related since all have to do with this notion of unconcealment/opening/lighting-up that Heidegger likes so much. Heidegger explicitly makes this connection in "The Origin of the Work of Art," where he says first that "language is poetry in the essential sense," then that "the essence of art is poetry," and finally that "the essence of poetry is the founding of truth."[18] Poetry is intimately related to truth since both have to do with unconcealment. And when we remember that the unconcealment associated with all these things—art, truth, language, and poetry—is the unconcealment of being and that language is the "house of Being," we can easily see the ontological thrust of Heidegger's theories of art. We can also see their essentialist, theological thrust. Many of Heidegger's commentators have pointed to the underlying theological structure of his thought: recall John Macquarrie's view that Heidegger's system is really just Christian theology dressed up in twentieth-century existentialist garb, with "Being" filling in for "God."

In the first part of this book I briefly mentioned postmodernism, a trend that has shown up in a number of different fields including, in the 1970s and 1980s, literary theory. I said that there is a theory of language associated with postmodernism, which can be found in its most characteristic form in Jacques Derrida's notion of language as a play of "differences," a "tissue" of signs in which any sort of concrete meaning is always around the next corner. For many figures associated with postmodernism, the reason for the instability of meaning in language is


that language is "enmeshed" or "entwined" in history. Every individual utterance is determined by the network of its own unique historical context, hence it is improper to speak of fixed, absolute, stable meanings. The context changes at every moment, the reader or listener can never replicate the context of the speaker or writer, and so meaning, bound always to a context that is fleeting and irreproducible, is always elusive. It's a style of thinking that easily moves between postmodern critics of despair like Paul de Man, who focus only on the text in order to pick it apart and show that it never does anything but refer back to itself, and socially progressive critics for whom the idea of the inextricable "entrapment" of the literary text in history fits in well with the idea that everything in the world, especially art, is political (history, of course, is political through and through).

Views like these are generally not ontological per se, and most postmodernist critics and theorists have not treated the subject of the mode of being of texts. But the underlying assumptions of this view really come from a Heideggerian ontology, and that's why Heidegger is often seen as a precursor to theories as apparently diverse as the ones I have mentioned. The whole reason Heidegger abandoned traditional notions of truth and language was that he mistrusted any conception of human existence as something that could be isolated from its "world" (postmodernists would say "context"). Traditional dualistic theories of knowledge envisioned a situation in which there was a conscious subject and a cognized world of things. It was merely a question of using the apparatus of the mind to order the impressions the subject received from the world of things. Heidegger wished to see the subject as inseparable from the world and, consequently, inseparable from the notions of being (or Being) and existence that inevitably become part of human existence. Human existence, or Dasein, is thus enmeshed in its "world" and is necessarily ontological (I am using the term ontological in a general sense; Heidegger has his own specialized meaning for it).

It would be simplistic to say that all the latest postmodern, deconstructionist, and leftist theories "come from" Heidegger the way Waldemar Conrad's theory "comes from" Husserl That seems to be what Allan Bloom thinks in his funny but extravagant pronouncement on comparative literature in America, in which he refers to Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes as the Parisian Heideggerians.[19] There is no doubt that Heidegger played an enormous role in these developments in modern criticism, if only because of his place both in the lineage that includes Derrida and in the historical-contextual theories of social-activist critics.


And if one sign of the role he played was the downfall of American higher education, as Bloom thinks, another, less catastrophic sign is the presence of ontology. The theories I'm referring to are not ontological in the same sense that Ingarden's are, that is, their authors are not specifically concerned with something called the mode of being of literary aesthetic objects. Still, there is no disputing that the idea of being plays a role here, and even if it's tied up with political and historical categories, the sort of ontological investigation we saw in Heidegger, Ingarden, and others was a necessary precursor of this kind of criticism.

Once again, of course, the poets appear to have beaten the professionals to the draw. In ontology there is a much clearer connection between at least some of the poets I've discussed and the theories that came later, for, as we'll see in the next chapter, some of the theories were drawn up with these very poets in mind.


Chapter Eleven—
Being in the World and Being in Structures in Mallarmé and Valéry

The "Unique, Difficult Being" of Language

We are coming full circle. The ontology of literary artworks inevitably gets us back to language. The earlier discussion about language and the fractures that occurred in it led us to the question of the hidden essence and the religious dimension of poetry. But religion was not a stable foundation for much of anything since it was always paired with sacrilege or nothingness. So from religion we turned to the possibility that the essence was a relational structure. Now we find ourselves alone again with the object, the text, or whatever you want to call it, and asking just what it is. And the best course is to go back and confront what it's made of, namely language. Foucault got it right when he talked about Mallarmé's contribution to the modern episteme : "Thought was led, and violently so, back towards language itself, back to its unique, difficult being."[1] The importance of having our thoughts turned back to the being of language is that language has necessarily become an object of ontological interest. Once language has been fractured and meaning scattered into the realm of the ideal or into the relational space between words, we're forced to take another look at it and the literary works made out of it. Being begins to look like another object of the quest for essence (the word essence, after all, has to do with being). Sartre had already tied a number of these factors together. In chapter 4, 1 mentioned how in Sartre's account the death of God had led Mallarmé to a religion of nothingness (theology), how this religion had become an in-


vestigation into being (ontology), and how poetry had been chosen to fill the void (language).

One of the most thoughtful discussions of language theory as it relates to modern poetry is Gerald L. Bruns's Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language . Bruns sees his subject as a dialectic of two conceptions of poetry: one Orphic, the other Hermetic. Orpheus was the poet who was torn limb from limb after his death and whose song went into all nature, and so Orphic poets see the world as the horizon of poetry. In the Orphic conception language is "a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere."[2] In the Hermetic conception, however, language and things made out of it are self-contained, "hermetic" structures. For Bruns, Mallarmé appears at first glance to be the Orphic poet par excellence but turns out to be only a failed Orphic poet. Bruns mentions Mallarmé's line about how everything exists to end up in a book, and he cites the phrase Orphic explanation of the earth to illustrate the idea of poetic language (in Mallarmé's view) as in some way encompassing earthly existence (OE, pp. 378, 663).

What makes Mallarmé's view paradoxical, as Bruns sees it, is that it is negative and negating. Mallarmé has radically separated language from being, and thus for him the creation of poetry is ultimately an act of annihilation that "establishes the word in the pristine universe of nothingness." Mallarmé is "the poet who seeks to return the world to the original void." His vision, Bruns says at the end of his chapter on Mallarmé, "is of the transcendent word—of language which belongs neither to the world of things nor to the human world of speech but rather to primordial emptiness, in which the splendor of beauty exists as a sheer presence, a pure quality unpredicated of any reality but the word. Mallarmé's, indeed, is the song of Orpheus in his absence."[3] So in Mallarmé's conception language can't really be Orphic (as Bruns defines it). For language to be Orphic, it must in some sense be coterminous with the world, just as in the myth Orpheus's song became infused into nature. But this condition can never be, since language always ends up not in nature or the world but in the void. Mallarmé's theory and practice betray not so much Orphism as a cult of nothingness that results, as the title of his chapter suggests, in the "transcendence of language."

This analysis is fascinating because, without realizing it, Bruns has explained the mechanism by which Foucault's statement about being led back to the unique being of language comes true. If language is separated from being, and poems end up dragging us out into the lonely regions of nowhere, then aren't we forced to come back to those words on the


page as the only thing that isn't nowhere? Language has already been evacuated of its meaning—as we learned a long time ago when we saw how meaning hid itself in the empty spaces between words. The poet has flown the coop—as we learned when we read of the "elocutionary disappearance of the poet" (OC, p. 366). So what's left besides the words, which now have become hard and objectlike? Here we are truly led violently back to the unique being of language, finally confronting those nasty, obdurate, recalcitrant things called words and asking ourselves, in a more fundamental way than ever before, just what they are. Now we can see the significance of Mallarmé's view, namely that the perspective it forces on us is ontological: what we are facing is the "unique being" of language.

The "Unique, Difficult Being" of the Work

The ontology of language is not the whole story. What I've said so far is that Mallarmé makes us think ontologically, not that the content of his writings is ontological. But as it happens, there is ontology in his writings, even though it's not called that. Ontology in Mallarmé has to do with strange questions about boundaries and limits. Mallarmé always joked about the most serious subjects, and this is one of them. I already quoted his remark about cramming stones into a book, a remark designed to illustrate the view that language—that is, poetic language—renders not objects but intangible things (see above, p. 71). The question here is silly but enormously profound: writers are supposed to put things into their books, so how do they fit them in without breaking the bindings? With Mallarmé, though, the answer to a silly question is complicated. Here it involves a kind of dialectic that corresponds to other dialectics in Mallarmé. How do you fit stones into a book? You don't, because . . . well, first we need to say what a book is, and then we need to say what's in it, and that's a spiritual matter. Question and answer imply a dialectic involving two perspectives: literal-physical and spiritual-philosophical

We can see this dialectic at work in the middle two of the four essays Mallarmé published under the title "Quant au Livre" (Concerning the Book). The first, "Etalages" (Displays [of merchandise]), presents the literal-physical perspective (predominantly), whereas the second, "Le Livre, instrument spirituel" (The Book, spiritual instrument), presents the spiritual-philosophical (predominantly). "Etalages," like any other


Mallarmé essay, is full of tortured syntax that has been wrapped around in a double carrick bend. But here, when we unravel it all, we find that Mallarmé is talking about . . . books. That's right—the things you buy in stores or at those stalls along the Seine in Paris, those piles of printed paper that bear a commercial value just as a tie, a bottle of perfume, or a tarte aux poires does. "A piece of news circulated, with the autumn wind, in the market and returned to the bare, solitary trees: might you get a retrospective laugh out of it, equal to mine; it seems there was a disaster in the book business, one might recall the term 'crash'? Volumes were scattered all over the ground if you can believe it, unsold" (OC, p. 373). Another of Mallarmé's jokes: if there's been a crash in the book market, it must mean that all the books have come crashing down to the floor. The essay is full of references to physical books and the book trade. In the midst of it we find the poet struggling to uphold the ideal of beauty when all around him books are being marketed and exchanged like dry goods. "As the Poet has his divulgation, so he lives; apart from and without the knowledge of publicity, of the counter weighed down by copies [of books], or of exasperated canvasers: previously according to a pact with Beauty that he has taken it upon himself to perceive with his necesssary and comprehensive gaze, and of which he knows the transformations" (OC, p. 378).

"Le Livre, instrument spirituel," by contrast, starts out with the Orphic proposition that "everything, in the world, exists to end up in a book" (OC, p. 378). Once again Mallarmé evokes the physical dimension of books, but now it is to show the passage from the physical to the spiritual. The act of reading accomplishes that passage: "A solitary tacit concert is given, through reading, to the mind that recaptures, on a lesser sonority, the meaning" (OC, p. 380). In a paragraph pregnant with the imagery of pagan sacrifice and sexual conquest, Mallarmé describes the act of cutting the pages of a book, an act by which one takes "possession" of the book (possession is a sexual euphemism in French). Mallarmé here and elsewhere is obsessed with the "folds" of a book, which are endowed with a mystical significance as they conceal and reveal its spiritual contents. Mallarmé's descriptions are very physical. In fact, he even compares himself with a cook, knife in hand, slaughtering poultry. But the physical book promotes a kind of expansion by which the spiritual is created: "The book, total expansion of the letter, must draw from it [i.e. the letter], directly, mobility and, spacious, by correspondences, institute play, you never know, that will confirm the fiction" (OC, p. 380).


Both between the two essays and within each one the dialectic goes on as always in Mallarmé: physical and spiritual, profane and sacred, prosaic and poetic. But the issue is unquestionably ontological. The conflict between the poet with his ideal of beauty, on the one hand, and packets of folded paper, on the other, involves two forms of being: the physical being of signifying objects and the uncertain being of the created world and the meanings associated with those objects. Does Mallarmé resolve the conflict? Of course not; he sees no possible resolution. The important thing is that he explores it.

There is another angle to the ontological question in Mallarmé. We've looked at books and pondered what they are and how we get from them to the spiritual dimension contained in, or associated with, them. How does that spiritual dimension come into being in the first place, and what does the author have to do with it? What is the mode of being of both the author in the work and the world of that work as it materializes? Mallarmé likes to envisage this world as theatre, just as he uses the theatre as the decor for the representation of other spiritual and religious ideas. "The Restricted Action," the first of the four essays on the Book, contains a bizarre passage that describes the coming-into-being of a poetic world—at least that's what it appears to describe:

The writer, from his ills, dragons that he has coddled, or from a gladness, must set himself up, in the text, the spiritual histrion.

Floor, chandelier, obnubilation of fabrics and liquefaction of mirrors in the real order, up to the excessive leaps of our gauze-enshrouded figure about an intermission, standing, of the virile stature, a Place emerges, stage, overvaluation, in front of everyone, of the spectacle of Self.
(OC, p. 370)

I don't pretend to be able to explain every word in this passage. But it appears that Mallarmé is picturing what it means to "set oneself up" (literally, "institute oneself") as an author in the text. The minute he thinks about that question, a theatre appears to him, with all its trappings—floor, chandelier, mirrors. What is taking place is the "spectacle of Self," as if the author's interior were a place where dramatic performances were put on with the self as hero.

Clearly this passage doesn't go far toward giving us a "serious" answer to the question of what a literary artwork is and where it comes from, since everything in it is highly metaphorical. At least it seems that way. After all, the floors and chandeliers are not real.

Or are they? We have already seen another place in Mallarmé's writ-


ings that features a theatre and something like a "spectacle of Self": the manuscript notes for the "Book," edited by Jacques Scherer.[4] The notes contain the same kind of images we find in "The Restricted Action" and some additional ones having to do with theatrical events. There is a performance, there are places for spectators, there is a reading of some sort, there are stage directions, there are the plans to shuffle and distribute pages in the room, there are arrangements for the sale of tickets and the collection of proceeds. Mallarmé repeatedly writes the words hero, drama, mystery, hymn, and theatre (or abbreviations for them). But in the manuscript notes Mallarmé doesn't appear to be speaking metaphorically, as he does in "The Restricted Action." Rather, he seems to have in mind a real performance of some sort, or at least a performance that could take place in the real world. It is as though he had asked himself how he could perform in actuality the "spectacle of Self," the spectacle of his own self, as he had pictured it in his essay. Indeed, how could he? By "instituting himself" in the text, as he had proposed in the essay? But then he'd run into those big rocks, and besides, the book covers wouldn't close on him or them. The joke comes back. By making floors and chandeliers literally spring from his head? No, the only thing to do was to get a theatre, a real theatre, and somehow make the performance there be as much like the one described in the essay as possible. Everything about the room would be set up so as to make it a reflection of the poet's self; in that way, to the extent that such a thing is possible in an atheized and desacralized world, everything could be infused with the poet's real presence, just as the consecrated Host contains the body of Christ. The trouble is, though, that he'd end up having to settle for something mundane, like reading his own poems to a bunch of people sitting in carefully arranged seats and surrounded by sheets of real paper with more poems written on them.

It's no wonder Mallarmé never got far with this project. I don't know whether he seriously thought he could do anything with it. I suspect he didn't. The important thing, however, is the degree to which he explored the limits and boundaries of a category of objects that has always defied precise definition. German romantic artists had done something similar almost a century before Mallarmé by playing with the boundary separating the world of their fictions from the real, historical world of their author. That's why we find all those funny scenes in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Ludwig Tieck, where a character in the story stumbles upon a copy of the story in which he's a character, or where the author suddenly announces a visit he has recently made to a character of his


own invention. But Mallarmé has gone farther than this and has given us, if only in a dialectic pondering, the outlines of a metaphysics of aesthetic objects.

I've been saying that Mallarmé probably considered the ontological question unanswerable. Given the idealist tendency we consistently find in him, this is not surprising. If beauty is an ideal and art is meant to contain or embody beauty, then artworks exist at the intersection between a knowable, real world on the one hand and an unknowable, ideal world on the other, and almost by definition their ontology is impossible to specify. There are several places in the manuscript notes where Mallarmé has written things that comment on this state of affairs. For example, here is a curious notation that calls to mind the dialectical nature of the four essays on the Book:

a book may
thus contain
only a certain quantity
of matter—its
not numerical whether
       it [the value] is
    more or less
than what is—to sell it [the book]
is too expensive and not enough.
(39 [A])

The issue here appears to be the impossibility of specifying "matter" and "value" in a book, which is the same as the impossibility of really saying what a book is. In another place a solitary notation reads, "a book neither begins nor ends: at most it pretends" (181 [A]). In still another place the author speaks of "this volume (of whose meaning I am not responsible—not signed as such)" (201 [A]). As we read these passages, the Book starts to look like a wondrously open structure with fluid or nonexistent boundaries. The author isn't there (but then that's nothing new for Mallarmé), and so what is there is free to escape into a real-ideal world that perhaps looks like our world and perhaps looks like its own private world.

Mallarmé's idealism leaves him at a hopeless impasse when it comes to distinguishing between the two worlds. But at least he deserves credit for having the imagination to point us in the direction of the other world—whichever one that might be.


Valéry and the Relational Essence of Human Things

For Paul Valéry, more than for any other figure I've chosen, there is an intimate connection between relationalism and ontology. In fact, the two can hardly be separated since Valéry's relationalism is exactly what defines for him the mode of being of artworks. Valéry is a much more satisfying ontologist than Mallarmé, in one sense, because without using the word ontology and without offering a carefully elaborated theory of ontology as such, he squarely confronts the issue.

One place where Valéry explored the ontology of art is a modern-day Platonic dialogue that he published in 1923 and called Eupalinos, or the Architect (O, 2:79—147). Valéry did not have much of a sense of humor, but this piece is rather amusing. The joke is that Socrates and his friends have died and become shades in the underworld, for, apparently, some time has passed since the great philosopher walked the streets of Athens. And so the characters in the dialogue frequently address each other as Socrates's disciple Phaedrus addresses him in the opening speech: "Why have you wandered off from the other shades, and what thought has united your soul, far from ours, with the borders of this transparent empire?" (O, 2:79). Presumably, if Socrates and his friends are speaking from the underworld, they are freed from their historical connection to ancient Greece and can comment on matters that are relevant to more modern times.

The subject of the dialogue is architecture, and one of Valéry's points is to reverse the traditional nineteenth-century hierarchy of the arts, a legacy from Hegel and Schopenhauer, both of whom believed that architecture, since it was the most material of the arts, was also the lowest. For Phaedrus and Socrates, the materiality of architecture is precisely what makes it the "most complete of arts." Most of man's creations, Socrates explains, are made with a view either to the body, in which case they reflect the principle of utility, or to the soul, in which case they reflect the principle of beauty. A third principle that we seek in our creations but that is often lacking, he says, is solidity or duration. Architecture alone reflects all three, and this capacity makes it supreme among the arts (O, 2:129–30).

The idea is the dual existence of architecture. It exists in the world, like other objects, and yet it owes something of its nature to the human soul. This subject is pursued extensively in Eupalinos . Where are works of architecture? What is their space? As Socrates comments at one point,


works of architecture (and music, too, for that matter) "exist in the midst of this world, like monuments from another world; or like examples, scattered here and there, of a structure and a duration that are not those of beings, but those of forms and laws" (O, 2:105). The peculiar thing about human creations, Socrates says a little earlier (speaking this time about music), is that they dwell in a space that appears to be coterminous with the one we dwell in but contains human characteristics. "Didn't it seem to you," Socrates asks Phaedrus, referring to the experience of hearing music, "that primitive space had been replaced by an intelligible and changing space?" (O, 2:102). When we listen to music, Socrates seems to be saying, it is as though the space in which we live had been replaced by one that is coterminous with it but is alive with human content, in short, with meaning. (The word intelligible, if Socrates is using it in the standard philosophical way, means accessible to the mind, as opposed to sensible, which means merely accessible to the senses.)

Valéry must have enjoyed thinking about this problem, because it turns up frequently in his writings. Dance intrigued him for the same reasons that architecture intrigued his Socrates. Like architecture, dance occupies two spaces. One is real, and the other is something Valéry cannot quite put into words. In a lecture titled "Philosophy of the Dance" Valéry says, "Dance is an art deduced from life itself, since it is nothing more than the set [ensemble ] of the human body; but an action transposed into a world, into a sort of space-time that is no longer entirely the same as that of practical life" (O, 1: 1391; Valéry's emphasis).

Valéry's interest in the status of human products is perhaps best illustrated in another passage from Eupalinos . A great many thinkers in the twentieth century have talked about the difficulty of distinguishing art objects from ordinary objects. The artists themselves have apparently found the subject fascinating since so many have tested the ontological limits of artworks by taking objects from daily life—latrines, Brillo boxes—putting them in museums, and seeing what happens to them. Valéry's very modern Socrates ponders this question, too, because of an experience that has challenged his otherwise facile sense of the distinction between human and ordinary objects. He tells Phaedrus of a day during his life on earth when he had taken a walk by the sea and found what he calls an ambiguous object. In that geographically uncertain region on the border of the marine and the terrestrial worlds, the sea had coughed up an ontologically uncertain thing. It was white, polished, hard, smooth, and light in weight. The problem was what to make of it, and it is clear from the story that Socrates felt compelled—as all of


us would—to determine its status. He proposes some possibilities: the bone of a fish, a piece of ivory. Clearly, the most important question, however, is whether it was made by man. "Was it a mortal obeying an idea, who, pursuing with his own hands a goal foreign to the material he was attacking, scratches, cuts apart, reconnects; stops and judges; and finally separates himself from his handiwork,—something telling him that his handiwork is finished?" (O, 2:118). Or was it the product of some other living thing, or quite simply "the fruit of an infinite time," the result of the chance action of water and sand? Unhappily, there is absolutely no means for making a decision, and Socrates ends his story thus: "Whether this singular object was a work of life, a work of art, or a work of time and an act of nature, I couldn't distinguish . . . So I suddenly threw it back into the sea" (O, 2:120).

Valéry obviously has no foolproof and universally effective method for distinguishing between human and nonhuman products. But most human products do not leave the perceiver susceptible to the kind of cognitive impasse Socrates experienced with his smooth, white mystery object. The question, then, is not so much what there is about an object that signals to us that it is a human product and not a thing found in nature (Valéry's Socrates has just demonstrated that we can't always tell) but, once we know that something is a human product, what there is about it that makes it a human product. Valéry's answer is that human products (oeuvres is the generic term he uses) bear the mark of their creators in the form of laws, by which he means the laws of human sensibility. He says this about music and architecture: "But to produce . . . objects that are essentially human; to use sensible means that are not merely resemblances to sensible things and doubles of known beings; to give figures to laws or deduce figures from the laws themselves, isn't this equally the purpose of both [art forms]?" (O, 2:106).

Some types of human products are not likely to give us the problems that Valéry's Socrates has had with his ambiguous object. Literary works serve as a good example here because we have no trouble distinguishing them from objects in nature. Once again, the human origin shows up in the form of laws. In a 1927 lecture titled "Propos sur la poésie" (A few words about poetry) Valéry describes the state in which a poet finds himself at the moment of creation. "The poetic state, or emotion," he says, "seems to me to consist in an emerging perception, in a tendency to perceive a world, or complete system of relations, in which beings, things, events, and acts, even if they resemble, one for one, those that populate and make up the sensible world, the immediate world from


which they are borrowed, find themselves nonetheless in an indefinable, but marvelously true [juste ] relation to the modes and laws of our own general sensibility" (O, 1:1363). Valéry is talking more about the "world" of the poem here than about the poem itself, but the essential thing is the alignment of world and work with the "laws of our own general sensibility."

What and where human products are thus has everything to do with their origin, with whence they come. This statement may sound absurdly obvious. If they are human products, and we know that they are human products, then of course their origin is human. But there's more to it than this. Valéry appears to have believed that something gets transferred from the mind of the creating artist into the artwork and that this something remains in the artwork as an inherent quality. The whole process by which artworks in particular and human oeuvres in general come into being was always a source of fascination for Valéry. Little notations crop up over and over again in the Notebooks about this process, about the transition from one state of existence to another, and about the surviving presence of the author's mind in the resulting product. Here's one example:

To write: to wish to give a certain existence, a continued duration, to phenomena of the moment.

But little by little, by dint of work, this moment itself gets distorted, becomes embellished, and makes itself more existent than it ever could have.
(C, 4:921 [2:998])

In another rambling entry Valéry writes that he and certain other poets "have sought to give the idea of a 'world' or system of things even more separated from the common world—but made out of its very same elements—the connections alone being selected—and also the definitions" (C, 15:248 [2:1116]). And in still another entry he speaks of "phenomenalizing the whole psyche [psychisme ] and seeking to find for it—(or to give to it)—the answer, (at the earliest possible moment) that it is a closed system" (C, 20:383).

Valéry resorts to his favorite idea in the last two passages, the idea of systems. When I discussed Valéry in chapter 8, I showed how pervasive the idea of systems is in both Valéry's model of the mind and his model of the artwork. It now seems clear that this notion is the answer to the ontological-aesthetic question in Valéry. What distinguishes the mode of being of artworks (and generally of human oeuvres ) from that of natural objects is that human oeuvres bear the marks of their creator in


the form of laws that have their origin in human sensibility. But when Valéry speaks of laws of human sensibility, he invariably reverts to the system or group concept. The reason that both artworks and the human mind operate as systems is that the system is exactly the thing that gets transferred from the mind to the mind's product as that product comes into being. That is Valéry's twentieth-century version of essentialism.

The human product that shows this process in its most obvious form is the geometric figure, something Valéry talks about in a great many places. Socrates and Phaedrus discuss this human creation in Eupalinos, noting what me might call the intentional character of geometric figures. Geometry depends for its existence on speech (parole ), Socrates says, because discursive reasoning (not Socrates' term) is what creates the figure and also what insures that it is not a mere accident but rather the product of a human intention (also not Socrates' term). He and Phaedrus express wonder at how words in the form of propositions can be transformed into figures in the outside world, as, for example, when one person orders another to walk in such a way as to remain constantly equidistant from two trees. The person who obeys this order "engenders" in the external world a geometric figure that has its origin in the mind of the person giving the order. When this happens, the human mind is made visible (O, 2:109–10). The geometric figure is a particularly appropriate Valéryan example because it is a spatial realization of a relational system. Geometry, as Valéry described it in a lecture in 1924, is "the machine of the mind made visible, the very architecture of intelligence entirely sketched out,—the temple erected to Space by Speech [Parole ], but a temple that can reach to infinity" (O, 1:1013).

Valéry did not generally go out of his way to distinguish between human products that were aesthetic and those that were not. That is why human products as a group share the mode of genesis we see in geometric figures. So it is not surprising that Valéry envisages the creation of literary works as similar to the creation of geometric figures. One sign of this view is his tendency to liken literary composition to a form of mathematical activity. Earlier I quoted an entry from the Notebooks in which Valéry talked about arriving "at the completion of a work by means of formal conditions accumulated like functional equations" (C, 28:468 [1:314–15]). In another place Valéry defines poetry as "the study (more conscious) of verbal trans[formations] that conserve their initial impulses" (C, 9:924 [2:1015]), a definition that suggests a transfer of mathematical operations (transformations of the sort I defined in Part III) from the mind into the poetic work. Perhaps the most


telling passage occurs in the writing called "A Few Words about Myself." In a section under the heading "ego scriptor" Valéry says:

Writing (in the literary sense) for me always assumes the form of a sort of calculation . That is to say that I relate what comes to me, the immediate, to the idea of problem and operations; that I regard the proper domain of literature as a certain mode of combinatory work that becomes conscious and tends to dominate and to organize itself on this model; that I distinguish rigorously the given from what the given can become as a result of work; that this work consists in transformations and that I subordinate . . . the "content" to the "form"—always inclined to sacrifice the former to the latter.

I justify myself by the example of the musician who deals with harmony by means of calculations, develops and transforms.—I get this from working on verse, which obliges one to make use of words completely differently from the way one does in normal usage, that is, under the pressure of a thought that sees only itself and that hastens to express itself.
(O, 2:1515)

But the clearest sign that literary works come into being in the same way as geometric figures is that literary works are like geometric figures. All those passages I quoted in chapter 8 showing the literary work as a relational structure should be proof enough. Works are like minds, and that is what makes works different from other objects. We might not always be able to see the system in a work and thus might not be able to tell that something is a work. For all we know, Socrates' white object was the work of an artist or a craftsman and therefore retained the relational structure its author transferred to it. The fact that we can't see this structure doesn't mean it's not there. If the object is a human oeuvre, then it will contain the remnants of its human origin in this way whether we see them or not.

It would be silly to call Valéry's musings his ontology of artworks, as if he had come up with definitive and convincing answers to all these daunting questions—or as if, for that matter, he had even meant to. For one thing, Valéry was too busy pretending he was not a philosopher and was a mathematician to show any such presumption. For another, Valéry's theories almost always have to be gleaned bit by bit from hundreds of different passages in hugely diverse writings, many of them never intended for publication. What matters, though, is that he asked the questions and left us a few thoughts on some possible solutions. And that at least gives us the satisfaction of knocking the professional philosophers and critics off their thrones by showing that someone else was there first—or there too.


Chapter Twelve—
Into the World of Names and Out of the Museum

Bely's Second Space

In Bely's best-known novel, Petersburg, we read this curious passage at the end of the Prologue:

If Petersburg is not the capital, then there is no Petersburg. It only appears that it exists.

However that may be, Petersburg not only appears to us, it also turns up—on maps: in the form of two circles, one within the other, with a black point in the center. And from this mathematical point, which has no dimension, it proclaims energetically that it is: from there, from this point the swarm of the printed book streams out. From this invisible point the circular rushes out headlong.[1]

The first character we are introduced to is Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, whose peculiar feature is that his mind works almost ceaselessly at geometric games. The world for Ableukhov, at least as he would like it to be, is a systematic series of figures, all as regular and orderly as the street plan of the Russian empire's capital city. If Ableukhov likes to play geometric games, the author likes to play ontological ones. The first chapter is subtitled, "in which the story is told of a certain worthy personage, his mental games, and the ephemerality of being." The narrator has explained how Ableukhov's imaginary geometric figures spin off into space and become real. He has told us that when Ableukhov, sitting in his carriage, sees a certain stranger in the street, that stranger exists only because Ableukhov sees him. Things spring from the head of


Ableukhov like Athena from the skull of Zeus. Later in the book we learn of the senator's "second space," a space he sees all the time that is material like the first, everyday space but at the same time spiritual. At the end of the first chapter, we read:

This shadow [of the stranger] sprang up by chance in the consciousness of Senator Ableukhov and received there its ephemeral being. But the consciousness of Apollon Apollonovich is a shadowy consciousness, because it too is the possessor of ephemeral being and it too is the outgrowth of the author's fantasy. . . .

Once [Ableukhov's] brain has been caught up with the mysterious stranger, that stranger is, actually is . He will never disappear from the prospects of Petersburg so long as the Senator exists with thoughts like these, because thought too exists.

So may our stranger be —he is a real stranger! And may the two shadows of my stranger be real shadows!

And these dark shadows will follow, they'll follow in the steps of the stranger, just as the stranger immediately follows after the senator. And the aging senator will pursue, he'll pursue you, reader, in his black carriage: and from now on you will never forget him![2]

Petersburg is one of those highly self-conscious, early twentieth-century novels that are filled with authorial tricks like this one. But Bely is doing more than just playing games. He's asking the reader to reflect on all these things, all the levels of reality associated with his novel, right down to the physical book the reader is holding. The miracle Bely describes in his playful way is a miracle of language and of being. It's the miracle of how a thing springs into existence because language makes it do so.

Petersburg was not the only place Bely expressed himself on this subject. I mentioned earlier the ontological dimension of Bely's language theory in "The Magic of Words." In that essay he says:

If words did not exist, then neither would the world itself. My ego, once detached from its surroundings, ceases to exist. By the same token, the world, if detached from me, also ceases to exist. 'I' and the 'world' arise only in the process of their union in sound. . . . Thus consciousness, nature, and the world emerge for the cognizing subject only when he is able to create a designation. Outside of speech there is neither nature, world, nor cognizing subject. . . . The original victory of consciousness lies in the creation of sound symbols. For in sound there is recreated a new world within whose boundaries I feel myself to be the creator of reality. Then I begin to name objects, that is, to create them a second time for myself.
(S, 429–30; SE, 93–94).


Later in the essay Bely speaks of how creation endows an image with "ontological being independently of our consciousness" (S, 446; SE , 109).

Most of all, Bely's ontology has to do with the status of signifying objects and the presence in them of a prototype (called value ). The mode of being of such objects is to a considerable extent determined by the epistemological stance of their observer, something I described when I talked about icons. Like icons in the Orthodox conception, signifying objects inhabit two worlds: the material world, and an invisible world that peers into the material world through the intervening barriers of iconic objects. For Bely, ontology and theology are hardly different.

More Unique, Difficult Being in Khlebnikov, and Khlebnikov's Book

It's striking how similar Khlebnikov and Mallarmé are in some respects. In speaking of Khlebnikov, I could almost repeat what I said in the previous chapter, substituting Khlebnikov for Mallarmé . Mallarmé's notion of language had led us back to its "unique, difficult being," to use Foucault's expression, because the evacuation of meaning (traditionally conceived) and the disappearance of the author had "yield [ed] the initiative to words," to use Mallarmé's own expression, and left us confronting plain language. Khlebnikov's theories do the same thing. I have talked about the two conceptions of zaum' language and about how both had the effect of objectivizing language. The first, "nativist" theory of zaum' language saw the poetic word as sharing in the existential autonomy of the object that it ideally designated, whereas the second theory saw the poetic word as existentially autonomous because it was the point of departure from the reality it created. Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh had spoken repeatedly of the word "as such," as if their ideas about poetic language, like Mallarmé's, had left us in the presence of these objects in all their naked existential isolation. (See above, pp. 54–57.)

Khlebnikov was fascinated with numbers, in part because of the comparison he saw between them and words. Much of what he wrote about numbers suggested that he saw them as fulfilling the function that words can never quite fulfill, namely the function of ideally signifying. Khlebnikov was also interested in the mode of being of mathematical entities, as he indicates in a peculiar notation from a series of thoughts collected


under the title "Proposals." Each "proposal" is written with its main verb in the infinitive because it is a proposal to do something. "Keeping in mind," he says, "that nO is the sign for a point, that n1 is the sign for a line, and that n2 and n3 are the signs for area and volume, to look for the spaces of the fractional degrees: n1/2 n2/3 n1/3 , where are they?"[3] Tzvetan Todorov quotes this passage in an essay he wrote on Khlebnikov and included in his book Poétique de la prose . He, too, sees the movement in Khlebnikov toward a conception of language as independent; and he believes that Khlebnikov's reflections on numbers and words are what led him to this conception. Precisely because words fulfill their function less well than numbers, says Todorov, paraphrasing Khlebnikov, they can "assume the function that really is their own: to be autonomous words."[4] Signifiers of all sorts were thus a source of ontological speculation for Khlebnikov.

Something else is true of Khlebnikov that was true of Mallarmé. Mallarmé's theory of language had a way of forcing us to confront language from an ontological perspective. But this is more a historical comment than it is a characterization of Mallarmé's views. Once again for Khlebnikov, as for Mallarmé, we find that those views themselves are ontological in nature. In the introduction to what used to be the standard English-language anthology of Khlebnikov's works, Edward J. Brown drew a distinction between Khlebnikov's theory of language and the Russian symbolist theory of language. For the symbolists, he says, language was a "vehicle for transcendental experience." For Khlebnikov, however, it was a vehicle "to discover the world." Brown feels that the world, "our own world," is always "vividly present" in Khlebnikov's poetry and prose.[5] I don't agree that language is always a vehicle for discovering the world in Khlebnikov, nor do I think that our own world is always present in his works. Brown's comment applies more to the first of the two versions of zaum' than to the second. But he is right to bring the world into the discussion. The theory of language we find in Khlebnikov (and Kruchenykh), with all of its complexities and ambiguities, begins to look a little bit like a pre-Heideggerian ontology. Certainly any investigation of language will bring up questions of the world, but Khlebnikov's theories, like those of many of his contemporaries, blurred the traditional sign-referent conception so much as to lead us and him into a probing of the mode of being of word and world.

Khlebnikov also dreamed of a book not entirely unlike Mallarmé's "Livre." There is nothing in Khlebnikov quite like the essays or manu-


script notes by Mallarmé, but the notion occurs with surprising frequency in short, mysterious passages that show the same ontological perspective as Mallarmé's writings. Khlebnikov often referred to nature and the world as a book. Notations he made here and there show him pondering the idea of the world as a manuscript or poem. He also apparently dreamed of creating a book of nature, or a book of life, like the Bible or the Koran. One of Khlebnikov's commentators, Raymond Cooke, has shown with many examples that this was a forceful mystical aspiration of Khlebnikov.[6] Of course, the book of nature raises the same issues we find in zaum' theory and the same ones Gerald Bruns raises when he talks about Mallarmé's Book. The view of the poetic work as coextensive with the world, either because it created that world or because it simply "writes" the world, shows a view of language that, if nothing else, must be characterized as ontological. Language is confronted with the very idea of being and is made to be identical to it. This is certainly not the same notion we find in Heidegger, but the orientation of the thought behind it is quite similar.

Bursting the Boundaries of Being

Mathematical speculation appears to have given rise to much of Russian avant-garde aesthetics. Many Russian artists of the period were fond of producing artworks that belonged to more than one art form. The arts in Russia seem to have plunged headlong into an examination of their own ontological boundaries by constantly testing the traditional limits. The tremendous number of paintings containing printed words shows the most common attempt in this era to break down the barriers between two art forms. The effect is to make the reader-viewer wonder exactly what sort of object a particular artwork is and why. El Lissitzky's "narratives," formed from a combination of pictures and words and gathered into a book, force us to ask not only what the nature of El Lissitzky's painting-books is but also what the nature of painting is and what the nature of books is.

One document from this era assigns clearly extraliterary values to the constituent parts of words. An untitled section of the almanac Sadok sudei (Hutch for judges), signed by David and Nikolai Burliuk, Elena Guro, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ekaterina Nizen, Khlebnikov, Livshits, and Kruchenykh, proposes "principles of artistic creation," including this: "We understand vowels as time and space, . . . consonants as col-


oring, sound, smell." In fact, the entire document represents an attention-getting attempt to destroy traditional notions about language, writing, and literary texts. "We characterize nouns not only as adjectives . . . but also as other parts of speech, such as individual letters and numbers," they say at another point in their proclamation. They go on to say that an author's erasures and doodlings are an inseparable part of a literary work.[7] This text, of course, is not unique. Almost all the manifestos published in the period of the Russian avant-garde contain similar statements. Many appear to be motivated solely by a desire to shock the reader. But it is no accident that the mode of being of artworks is one of the primary subjects that are chosen for their shock value.

If artists of all sorts in this era thought that mixing up genres and forms was shocking, they clearly thought it was even more shocking to mix up art and life. Larionov and zaumnik Il'ia Zdanevich published a manifesto in 1913 called "Why We Paint Ourselves." And paint themselves they did. Larionov and Zdanevich were not the only ones. There is a famous photograph of David Burliuk dressed in formal attire, complete with top hat, and sporting on his right cheek a painting of a bird in a tree. The point was to break down the barrier between art and life, something that would become commonplace later in the twentieth century, when artists started displaying latrines in museums alongside the other objets d'art . The artists of the Russian avant-garde, however, were more interested in taking art out of the museum than they were in bringing life into it. A young man in public with a painted face—isn't that the perfect way to show that art and being-in-public are really the same thing? And so Larionov and Zdanevich proudly proclaim, "We have joined art to life. After the long seclusion of the masters, we loudly called out to life and life made an incursion into art, now it is time for art to make an incursion into life. The painting of faces is the beginning of the incursion."[8] As the avant-garde movements continue, we find more and more expressions of the desire to take art out of its separate space and put it into "real space." The sculptor Vladimir Tatlin made a special point of working with real space, using recognizable materials from ordinary life to make artworks that would inhabit that space. The whole concept of the object becomes increasingly problematic in the work of artists who were as concerned as these artists were with the margins of aesthetic thinghood. El Lissitzky and Il'ia Ehrenburg (1891–1967), who was to become a central figure in Soviet literary life, founded a magazine in 1922 called Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet (Russian, German, and French, respectively, for "thing" or "object"). The purpose of this publication


was to promulgate the aesthetics of Constructivism, a movement devoted to producing industrial, real-world, material artworks. The object side of an art object was of primary importance to the artists of this movement; hence the title of their journal.

The Constructivist movement had a political purpose, too. Art in the immediate postrevolutionary era was seen as having a social function: the more concrete, the closer to life it was, the better it could reach out to the masses. The art-into-life aesthetic, which was proposed with such vigor in the years before World War I, ended up serving the postrevolutionary culture in a most convenient way. After the revolution the idea was to bring art to the masses. What better way to do this than to bring them art that didn't look like art, art that no longer lived in its own private, privileged space inside a museum (or a book, for that matter) but lived in their ordinary, prosaic, proletarian space and looked just as drab as they and the things in their world did?

I have given only a few isolated examples of a trend that was so large as to overshadow almost everything else in the cultural scene of the years right after the revolution. I'm not interested here in the social and political role of art. I mention the trend because the artists involved in this kind of activity, wild, obstreperous, and unruly as they all were, were showing their own peculiar ontological perspective on art. Their concern with the space not only of truly spatial arts like sculpture but also of nonspatial arts like poetry is a strong indication that they were wondering precisely about the mode of being of art, that they were asking the same questions as the ones I brought up in chapter 10 when I talked about the professional philosophers in the twentieth century who have written about aesthetic ontology.

El Lissitzky wrote about these matters in the 1920s in a number of writings having to do with a familiar subject of ours, the book. In one such writing he muses about the "book-space" and how it must correspond to the content of the book.[9] In another, titled "Our Book," he gives a kind of capsule history of printed books and then surveys the avant-garde movement in Russia. He talks about the linking of painting and poetry in the publications of Futurist poets and painters. He tells how the revolution led to the bursting of the bounds of the traditional book. "The traditional book," he says, "was torn into separate pages, enlarged a hundred-fold, coloured for greater intensity, and brought into the street as a poster." At the end of his essay he says that the book is becoming "the most monumental work of art" because it is reaching out to the masses in an unprecedented way. Illustrated weekly magazines


prove this, and so does the rise in publication of childrens' books. For some reason, Lissitzky feels that these books are fundamentally changing the way people relate to the world, and he adopts a quasi-ontological language to express a thought that started out being political: "By reading, our children are already acquiring a new plastic language; they are growing up with a different relationship to the world and to space, to shape and to colour; they will surely also create another book. We, however, are satisfied if in our book the lyric and epic evolution of our times is given shape."[10] Is this just an extravagant way of saying that new books are filled with new ideas that will change the lives of their readers? Given the era when Lissitzky was writing, I don't think so.


Chapter Thirteen—
Rilke's House of Being

Philosophers love Rainer Maria Rilke because his poetry is filled with the issues they always talk about. He was obsessed with things —what they are, how we see them, the soul or essence that resides in some of them, how they regard us, and how some of them seem to transcend mere thinghood to inhabit a homey, familiar, human position in our human world. He wondered endlessly about one of the most fundamental philosophical problems: the nature of the interaction between subject and object. He wondered about the position that we occupy in our living, human world. And he wondered about being.

He wondered about all these questions in his poetry without writing overtly philosophical poetry. One of his most brilliant commentators, the German critic Käte Hamburger, thinks this is the quality that makes Rilke unlike any other poet. His poetry, she says, "is constituted in such a way as to be able to respond to philosophical questions—and this precisely because it is not philosophical poetry or poetry of ideas."[1] Rilke's poetry is not classic Gedankenlyrik (literally, "thought-lyric") of the sort we find in Schiller and Goethe, not poetry one makes by taking great thoughts and putting them into verse. No, says Hamburger, quoting in turn another Rilke scholar, Rilke's poetry is thought-lyric of another sort because it consists of a kind of "poetically creative shaping of thought" where making poetry and thinking are the same thing.

Rilke could accurately be called the ontologist's poet, if that name didn't have the effect of reducing him to a kind of plaything for tweedy, pipe-smoking academics. From early on, we find him puzzling over the


nature of the things we are surrounded by. Things of all sorts occupied his thoughts: art things, home things, living things, indifferent things in nature. He is the author of several collections of poems often referred to as Dinggedichte, "thing-poems," in which the poet focuses his vision on a thing and on the interaction between that thing and the subject perceiving it. Often the thing is an art object. Sculptures especially interested him. Hamburger and Paul de Man have both pointed out that Rilke's characteristic trick in these poems is to perform a reversal of subject and object, ascribing selfhood to things, as Hamburger puts it, or locating in the object the inwardness we normally associate with the subject, as de Man puts it.[2] Rilke's interest in the subject-object problem is neither psychological nor purely epistemological. It is deeply ontological. The unusual reversal Rilke operates, his tendency to project the soulfulness of the human subject onto the inert object, shows an impassioned urge to explore the being of both subject and object, the different worlds the two inhabit, and the reasons for their complete separation. Hamburger expresses this eloquently in her book on Rilke. The "effort expended towards overcoming the strangeness, the separateness of man who says 'I'and the being outside of him" is in Hamburger's view the "fundamental problematic" of Rilke's poetry. Rilke's task, she believes, is "to recognize and name what is [das Seiende, literally "the being"]." The activity of the self that is described in Rilke's poetry is "grasping the being and being-thus of the 'I.'"[3]

The Duino Elegies, which Rilke wrote between 1912 and 1922, offer some of the deepest meditations ever written on being and transcendence, being-in-life and being-in-death. As always, Rilke can write about these things in the most intimate and familiar of tones. "For it appears that everything / makes us at home. See, the trees are ; the houses / that we dwell in, are still there."[4] "Doesn't the world-space, / in which we dissolve ourselves, taste of us?" (Sä217.3200mt. W, 1:690). "Being-here is magnificent" (Sämt. W, 1:710). "Nowhere, beloved, will world be but within. Our / life goes there with transformation. And smaller and smaller / shrinks the outside" (Sämt. W, 1:711). The tenth, and final, elegy presents a landscape of what the poet envisions as life, but life that has accepted death as part of it. Rilke, like Heidegger after him, cherished the idea of a human life that tends in the direction of death in a way that blurs the boundary between the two (Heidegger's Sein zum Tode, "being-toward-death").[5] His landscape is inhabited by a race of creatures called laments (Klagen), and in it we see the same things we see in our own world, except in Rilke's world they are lament-things. The


whole vision is extraordinary for its vividly presented dual quality: the poet has taken our world-space and superimposed on it another one with a spiritual dimension that defies exact description but whose presence we feel like a warm breeze. Ontology has to do with the space or world we dwell in, and for Rilke, as for Valéry, ontological questioning involves a questioning of space and world.

In a poem he wrote in 1914, Rilke came up with a name for the realm where the interaction between us and the outside takes place—Weltinnenraum, or "world-innerspace":

Through all beings stretches the  one  space:
World-innerspace. The birds fly quietly
through us. Oh, I who wish to grow,
I look out, and inside  me the tree grows.

I care, and the house stands inside me.
I take refuge, and refuge is inside me.
Lover that I became, on me rests
the image of lovely creation and weeps and weeps.
(Sämt. W,  2:93)

This is the place where everything comes together, where those recalcitrant things from the outer world settle within us, where they are zu Hause, at home.

So far I've spoken only about the ontological character of Rilke's vision. What about the ontology of artworks? As it happens, there is a place where Rilke talks explicitly about the mode of being of artworks. For six months in 1902 and 1903 Rilke enjoyed an arrangement under which he lived as a kind of disciple of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, observing the artist at work and talking to him for several hours every day. In December 1902 he completed work on a monograph about Rodin, which was published in March 1903. Later, in 1905 and 1906, he served as Rodin's personal secretary, and in 1907 he supplemented his earlier monograph with a second one. The two pieces were published together and titled simply Auguste Rodin . They are often referred to as the Rodin notebooks.[6]

Rodin is sometimes credited with fostering in Rilke his devotion to things. I don't know whether Rodin really deserves this credit or whether Rilke would have come up with the idea on his own, but there is no doubt at all that things are in the forefront of consciousness in the Rodin notebooks. Rilke starts off the second one, which was originally given as a lecture and not intended to be connected with the first one, by


inviting his readers (listeners) to ponder things. He tells us to think of a thing from our childhood, a thing we spent a lot of time with, and asks if there was anything "closer, more intimate, more needed" than this thing. He offers a mythical history of human things, speaking of the moment when man first began to make his own things, of how a human thing would suddenly take on "the traces of a threatened, open life," would be "still warm from it," and would then go to take its place among other things in the world, adopting "their composure, their quiet dignity" (Sämt. W, 2:210). He moves on to talk about Rodin, always using the word thing for the master's artworks. As you look at his works, Rilke says, "you see men and women, men and women, and still more men and women. And the longer you look, the more simplified even this content becomes, and you see: things" (Sämt. W, 5:215).

This is the subject of the Rodin notebooks: things and art things, their mode of being in the world and how they are distinguished from one another. As art things take up residence in the midst of ordinary things, they stand out largely for the way they are closed off from the world of nature at the same time as they inhabit that world. Rilke reflects on how Rodin must have come to realize that works of sculpture in this age were no longer associated, as they used to be, with buildings, like cathedrals, that served as a natural habitat for them. In modern times, says Rilke, the work of sculpture has had more and more to stand on its own. "It was a thing that could exist for itself alone, and it was good to give it the essence of a thing, one that people could walk around and look at from all sides. And yet it had to distinguish itself somehow from other things, from the ordinary things that one may confront head-on and touch. It had to become somehow untouchable, sacrosanct, cut off from chance and time, in which it rose up, lonely and wonderful, like the face of a clairvoyant" (Sämt. W, 5:149). What makes art things different from ordinary things? Rilke's answer is surprisingly similar to Valßry's. It all has to do with inner laws and relations. He says that people have recently come to see, for painting at least, "that an artistic whole need not necessarily coincide with the wholeness of an ordinary thing, that, independently of ordinary things, new unities arise within the image, new combinations, relations, balances. It is no different in sculpture. It falls to the artist to make one thing out of many and out of the smallest part of a thing to make a world" (Sämt. W, 5:164).

Rilke repeatedly stresses the separateness of art things, the way they seem to be closed off from the outside, forming a private world that is different from the space they occupy in the world of ordinary things.


Here is what he says about The Burghers of Calais, a Rodin sculpture representing a group of six figures: "Like all groups in Rodin's work, this one, too, was closed on itself, it was its own world, a whole filled with a life that circles around but nowhere spins off and disappears" (Sämt. W, 5:193). Describing the way a sculpture gradually takes shape under Rodin's hands, he says this: "To reproduce a thing meant to have gone over every place on it, having concealed nothing, having overlooked nothing, having nowhere been dishonest; to know all the hundred profiles, all the views from above and all the views from below, every point of intersection. Only then did a thing exist, only then did it become an island, detached everywhere from the continent of the uncertain" (Sämt. W, 5:217). And here is how Rilke describes Rodin's "acquisition of space": "Once again it was things that looked after him. . . . They repeated to him every time a lawfulness that they were filled with and that he gradually came to grasp. They granted him a glance into a mysterious geometry of space that allowed him to appreciate how the contours of a thing must arrange themselves in the direction of certain mutually inclined planes, so that this thing would actually be accepted by space, so that space, as it were, would recognize it in all its cosmic autonomy" (Sämt. W, 5: 219–20). Rilke's concluding vision of Rodin's work focuses once again on the notion of worlds: "In a colossal arch he raised up his world above us and set it in Nature" (Sämt. W, 5:242).

The closest Rilke comes to an ontology of poetry or literary artworks is in the Sonnets to Orpheus, which he wrote in 1922 and which explore something very much like world-innerspace, but specifically in the context of song. Orpheus, the bard who charmed all nature with his song, has become here the bard of being for Rilke, the poet who shapes a world inside us with his song: "There rose a tree. 0 pure overrising! / O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in my ear!" (Sämt. W, 1:731). Orpheus's song has the power to make a world that pervades everything:

And almost a girl it was and emerged
from this bliss of song and lyre
and gleamed brightly through her spring veil
and made herself a bed in my ear.

And slept in me. And everything was her sleep.
(Sämt. W,  1:731)

"Song is existence," the poet triumphantly proclaims, using the word Dasein, which literally means "being there" (Sämt. W, 1:732). Orpheus is a creature who dwells in "both realms." In the myth, when his wife,


Eurydice, died, Orpheus so charmed the gods with his song that he was permitted to seek her in Hades and return to the world of the living with her, provided only that he not look back on the way out. Naturally, he looked back and lost her. But this episode put him in the privileged position of having dwelt briefly in the land of the dead, which for Rilke means that he is one of those beings for whom death has been incorporated into life. "Is he from around here? No, from both / realms his wide nature sprang" (Sämt. W, 1:734).

There is something amazingly modern about all this talk of worlds and space and being and existence. Not the least amazing thing about it is that Rilke was not in touch with philosophy, in the academic sense, and yet if we consider the central issues in early twentieth-century thought, they all are there in his work. Käte Hamburger sees the same concern for essences in Rilke's poetic vision as in Husserlian phenomenology, the same desire to penetrate to the inner core of obects—Wesensschau, "essence-vision," she calls it. As I mentioned in chapter 6, Husserl sought a method that would allow philosophers to bracket away the presuppositions that naturally accompany an act of perception so as to arrive at the very essence of the contact between consciousness and the phenomenon that presents itself to consciousness. The human subject in Rilke shows the same tendency when he peers into the interior of an object and pretends to see there the soul that is apparently missing in himself.

Hamburger also finds the same structure of consciousness implicit in Rilke's poetry as the one Husserl describes in his writings. For Husserl, consciousness is always intentional, always directed toward something, always consciousness of something. Hamburger sees the same notion in Rilke, where the most characteristic situation is one of polarity between the self and what it confronts.

Husserl's pupil, Martin Heidegger, was an admirer of Rilke's poetry; hence any affinities between Heidegger and Rilke are a great deal less surprising than those between Husserl and Rilke. I mentioned the notion of being-toward-death that Heidegger introduces in Sein und Zeit (Being and time) and that so closely resembles the idea of death that Rilke advanced in the Duino Elegies . The brief outline I gave in Chapter 10 of Heidegger's ontology should make it clear that Heidegger's concerns were close to Rilke's. In 1946 Heidegger wrote an essay about Rilke titled "Wozu Dichter?" in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the poet's death.[7] The title comes from a line in a famous poem by the German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin:"und wozu Dichter in dürf-


tiger Zeit," which means something like "and what's the use of poets in needy times?" Needy times for Heidegger has to do with the absence of God in the modern era. Heidegger speaks of "the fault of God" (der Fehl Gottes), which means "that no god visibly and unequivocally gathers men and things to himself any more, ordaining out of such a gathering the history of the world and man's sojourn in it" (p. 248). Poets are "the mortals who in all gravity, celebrating in song the god of wine, trace the tracks of the gods who have escaped, stay on their track and thus continue tracking the way for their kindred mortals up to the turning point" (p. 250). Is Rilke such a poet in such a time? Needy times for Rilke meant times when the "unconcealedness of the essence of pain, death, and love were missing." Rilke, according to Heidegger, was able to experience this unconcealedness personally (pp. 253–54).

Heidegger appears to be ascribing to Rilke some sort of religious vision that allowed him to escape the spiritual barrenness of godless times. In doing so, he is pointing to the very crux of the flight from Eden. Heidegger's thought is religious in its origins, as I've said before, and one school of Heideggerian thought actually uses Heidegger as the basis for a modern theology. But Heidegger is careful to avoid anything that sounds explicitly theological, and so he stays with the ontological vocabulary that is characteristic of him. This hesitation between theology and ontology is what makes him a quintessential "twentieth-century thinker," and it is what he claims to see in Rilke. In fact, so strong is Heidegger's desire to see a kindred spirit in Rilke that, in the phrase I just referred to, when he comes to mention the "unconcealedness" Rilke experienced, he doesn't talk about "essence of pain, death, and love," as he had a paragraph before. Instead, he says that Rilke experienced the "unconcealedness of being" (das Seiende), a thoroughly Heideggerian phrase. One of the central terminological distinctions in Heidegger—in fact, a distinction that is arguably at the root of his philosophical enterprise—is the one between Sein and das Seiende. Sein (the verb to be used as a substantive and usually translated as "Being," with a capital B ) is the more embracing term for being in its broadest and most indefinable sense, whereas das Seiende (the present participle, "being"—that is, something in the process of performing the action of the verb to be —used as a substantive and usually translated as "being," with a lowercase b ) refers to that-which-is, to things that, well, are . Here is a typical statement Heidegger makes about Rilke: "Rilke names Nature, in as much as it is the foundation [Grund ] of the being [das Seiende ] that we ourselves are, the fundamental foundation [Urgrund ]. This indi-


cates that man reaches farther into the foundation of being than does any other being. The foundation of being has always been named Being [Sein ]. The relation between founding Being and founded being is the same for man as it is for plants and animals" (p. 257). From here Heidegger moves on to the notion of Wagnis, "venture," and the essay continues in the same manner. I'm not trying to make light of what Heidegger says or to pull the classic trick of enemies of culture who cite complicated material out of context so it will sound pretentious and ridiculous. I am neither giving a lesson in Heidegger nor mounting an assault on him. It's merely an effort to show that this prominent reader of Rilke saw ontology as the fundamental issue in Rilke's poetry. But the ontology Heidegger sees sounds like theology (substitute "God" for "Being"). Later on in the essay, after a lengthy passage on the theme of being, Being, and how language is the house of Being (a favorite notion of Heidegger's), he says that "for Rilke's poetry, the Being of being is metaphysically specified as worldly presence, which presence remains connected with representation in consciousness, whether this consciousness has the character of the immanence of the calculating faculty of representing or whether it has the character of an inward turn toward the heartily accessible Open" (pp. 286–87). The "worldly presence" of the "Being of being . . . metaphysically specified"—make a few substitutions and you have the doctrine of the Incarnation.

It has been said about Heidegger, even more than about Rilke, that he is not truly a philosopher but rather someone who thought about philosophical matters and then found an entirely new language in which to talk about them. Once again, I do not want to take a position on a question (whether Heidegger was a philosopher) that is not important for what I'm talking about here. It is beyond dispute, however, that Heidegger used a different language from the one that was traditional in academic philosophy. And it is also beyond dispute that that language has a great deal in common with Rilke's. For both of them, the characteristic gesture was the turn from the heights of speculative abstraction to the most concrete and familiar images of a world that is thoroughly human (and European). The presence of this gesture in Rilke's poetry is obvious. Heidegger is always ready to "ground" his discussion of the Being of being and all his other impossibly cumbersome constructs in the familiarly human with an expression like the house of Being . Who would ever expect to find such a phrase in, say, Kant? At the same time, both Rilke and Heidegger show an essentialist vision that, though pretending to flee from the spiritual world of an earlier, Christian Europe,


seems ever drawn back to it. When Rilke sought to evoke the "space," the mode of being, of Rodin's artworks, he chose the word sakrosankt . This wording can hardly be an accident.

De Man and De Trut

We find ourselves coming back to the idea that the poets were there first: if modern criticism has been interested in poets of that era, maybe it's because it got its methods from them and ended up just looking at itself. And looking at itself and knowing that it was looking at itself (remember that phrase of Mr. Head, who, while being, looked at himself looking at himself?) increasingly made modern criticism think that selfreferenriality was itself a pretty interesting thing to talk about, and so it began to talk about language and how language never does anything but refer back to itself. Which refers us back to Part I of this book, where we looked at how language became a subject of criticism (which is nothing more than language about other language).

Actually, it refers us back to the very beginning of this book, to the Introduction, where we talked about those modern critics who have made their way into the popular press with the idea that literature is nothing more than subterfuge. After the revelation was made late in 1987 that Paul de Man had written for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper during World War II, the popular press for months was full of ankles about the great academic scandal. James Atlas wrote an article about the affair in the New York Times Magazine in August of 1988. The article contains an amusing story about Paul de Man, amusing mostly because it makes fun of de Man's European accent. One time, after a class with his Yale colleague Geoffrey Hartman, de Man is alleged to have said, "We've had beauty. Now let's have de trut."[8] The master player of the game of subterfuge, the art of concealment and evasion, was Paul de Man. He played it in his writing when he refused to issue an interpretation of a text on the grounds that the text was merely selfreferential. He made it the subject of his writing when he showed how texts evaded interpretation because they were merely self-referential. And, of course, he played it in his life when he surfaced in this country as a complete unknown after World War II and went on to enjoy a long and brilliant academic career without telling anyone "de trut" about the person he had been before. But I'm not here to talk about "de man." I'm here to talk about his work.


One of de Man's finest examples of the self-referentiality of texts was Rilke. In "Tropes (Rilke)" de Man argues his way from pointing out Rilke's characteristic reversals to claiming that Rilke's poetry is ultimately about language and that it thus asserts the complete failure of language to mean anything. "The determining figure of Rilke's poetry," de Man says, "is that of chiasmus, the crossing that reverses the attributes of words and of things. The poems are composed of entities, objects and subjects, who themselves behave like words, which 'play' at language according to the rules of rhetoric as one plays ball according to the rules of the game."[9] The world Rilke has created "is then explicitly designated as a verbal world" with an "orientation towards the pole of language" (p. 39). De Man analyzes one of the poems from Rilke's Neue Gedichte (New poems) called "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes." The poem is about Orpheus's ascent from the underworld with Eurydice. The important moment for de Man comes at the end, when Hermes, who has accompanied Orpheus on his journey, leaves Orpheus to return to the world of the living (after Orpheus has looked at Eurydice) and "follows Eurydice into a world of privation and nonbeing" (p. 47). Without any warning, de Man draws this extraordinary conclusion from the scene he has described:

On the level of poetic language, this renunciation [that is, Hermes's act of renunciation] corresponds to the loss of a primacy of meaning located within the referent and it allows for the new rhetoric of Rilke's "figure." Rilke also calls this loss of referentiality by the ambivalent term of "inwardness" (innen entstehen, Weltinnenraum, etc.), which then does not designate the self-presence of a consciousness but the inevitable absence of a reliable referent. It designates the impossibility for the language of poetry to appropriate anything, be it as consciousness, as object, or as a synthesis of both.
(p. 47)

So everything is language, nothing is determinate, everything is awash in polyvalence, and Rilke proves it. What's more, he seems to believe it. Of course, this is an extravagant thing to say, and anyone other than de Man would be hard put to find this idea in this poem (or "designated" by this poem). Furthermore, as we saw earlier, de Man's worldview is not so polyvalent and indeterminate as he might lead us to think, since it is anchored in a fervent faith in the specificity of poetic language (when it comes to language, de Man calls his private Eden "rhetoricity"). In any case, if we are looking for the idea that de Man sees in Rilke's poem, we will find it sooner in Heidegger and the notion of the hermeneutic circle . This concept, which I mentioned in the Introduction, is


from Heidegger's Being and Time, and it has to do with how, when we interpret something, we must already understand what we are trying to interpret, with the result that understanding and interpretation move in what appears to be a vicious circle. De Man talks about this question early in Blindness and Insight, and his intimacy with Heideggerian thought in general is apparent in his writings.

What we do find in Rilke is ontology. We find it in the problematic nature of the interaction between human subject and the subject's world, something de Man has described so well in his analysis of reversals in Rilke's poetry. And we find it in the idea of Weltinnenraum, something de Man completely, but predictably, misunderstands (or was blinded to, as he would say). Ontology is one thing that attracted Heidegger to Rilke; it's what they have in common both with each other and with de Man. Once he's convinced that the world is deprived of faith, the Heideggerian can always turn to Being as the object of his essentialist yearning. And Rilke, the most religious irreligious poet that ever lived, is always there to serve as an example.

So what happens is something like this: We begin with Rilke and dwell with him in the "house of Being." This leads us to reflect on ontology. For Heidegger and de Man, ontology is inextricably caught up with hermeneutics and the idea of interpretation. De Man, in fact, declares that the hermeneutic circle is at the basis of Being and Time . From the idea of hermeneutics we arrive with de Man at the circularity of language and the indeterminacy and polyvalence of all meaning. And from the idea that interpretation and understanding are circular we arrive at the idea that poetry and criticism are not really so different. This was one of de Man's favorite ideas, and, as it happens, he introduces it, in Blindness and Insight, precisely within the discussion of the hermeneutic circle. I quoted from that discussion in the Introduction, and it is worth repeating: "The relationship between author and critic does not designate a difference in the type of activity involved, since no fundamental discontinuity exists between two acts that both aim at full understanding; the difference is primarily temporal in kind. Poetry is the foreknowledge of criticism. Far from changing or distorting it, criticism merely discloses poetry for what it is."[10]

And so here we are, back at Rilke, who gives us the idea that . . . well, it's no use repeating it, because we'll just be starting all over again, with books about books about books. About books.



Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.