on Mute Objects of Expression by Francis Ponge, tr. by Lee Fahnestock (Archipelago Books)
The first official act of the German occupiers of France in 1940 was to move French time up by an hour to synchronize with Berlin time. My mother still remembers the sinister dark mornings of that first winter. The familiar warped by the unopposed unfamiliar, the ordinary made bizarre, the sense of feeling at home blown away. The French called it un sentiment de viol -- a feeling of rape. They had been transformed into helpless objects, their image in the eyes of invaders. “I will corrupt the countries I occupy,” said Hitler whose soldiers, instructed to behave properly, paid in marks for goods in the shops and stalls, while the treasury was confiscated and the premiers crus were shipped to Goering’s castle.
The resistance writer Vercours (Jean Bruller) wrote after the war, “French writers had two choices: collaboration or silence.” Perhaps it has been underestimated how the effortless disruption of “reality,” deeply shameful to the French, influenced the arts and philosophy of the post-war period. When local time, tantamount to local identity, can’t be counted on to signify itself, then the way is open to structuralism and the unstable, arbitrary surface effects of postmodernism. The corrupted state subsumes the invader’s mendacious moralisms (into the prideful French tongue, via the complicit Vichy regime), so the rebellious arts will exceed such postures and discredit signification itself.
By 1942, when Francis Ponge’s Le parti pris des choses appeared (titled in English as The Voice of Things), the French had become endangered, mute objects of disdain. “Kings do not touch doors. They know nothing of this pleasure,” begins his little prose piece “The Pleasures of the Door.” In Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino described Ponge’s method and purpose: “Taking the most humble object, the most everyday action, and trying to consider it afresh, abandoning every habit of perception, and describing it without any verbal mechanism that has been worn by use. And all this, not for some reason extraneous to the fact in itself (for, say, symbolism, ideology or aesthetics), but solely in order to reestablish a relationship with things as things.” Ponge believed that the root meanings of words contained or pointed to the physical uniqueness of the object. Through precision of expression, the object revives (survives) in our sight. But sometimes “facts” got in the way. For instance, he claimed that birds care little for blackberries “since in the end so little is left once through from beak to anus.” This fanciful inaccuracy then sets up his self-referential point, the comment on art:
“But the poet during his professional stroll is left with something: ‘This,’ he says to himself, ‘is the way a fragile flower’s patient efforts succeed for the most part, very fragile though protected by a forbidding tangle of thorns. With few other qualities – blackberries, black as ink – just as this poem was made.”
Mute Objects of Expression includes pieces written in the late 1930s, and also during 1940 to 1943 when Ponge lived in the Loire valley, a part of “unoccupied” France managed for the Nazis by the Vichy proxy government. The writing here is very much in keeping with The Voice of Things, but includes more concentrated bursts of comment on his sense of mission that gloss and add depth to the earlier work. Lee Fahnestock’s fine translations capture the feel of a speculating mind, its pause and sidetrack, fixing a now finicky, then whimsical gaze on the object.
The simple but still accurate take on Ponge (encouraged by Ponge himself) portrays him as an adulator of the common object of his attention for the purpose of enlivening the reader’s ability to appreciate the world. In “Banks of the Loire” (1941) he says, “Always go back to the object itself, to its raw quality … Recognize the greater right of the object, its inalienable right, in relation to any poem.” Animated by an agenda that would extend beyond the act of description, Ponge made promises to himself such as “Never sacrifice the object of my study in order to enhance some verbal turn” or “Never try to arrange things” since “the point is knowing whether you wish to make a poem or comprehend an object.” But, of course, he did arrange things and made many verbal turns. By putting “making a poem” in opposition to “comprehending” and favoring the latter, he suggested that his language would always be reaching toward that understanding but never attaining it fully. Thus the object may be paramount as pretext, but the pathos and interest are located in the failure. “I have to say that the mimosa doesn’t inspire me in the least,” he writes in “Mimosa.” “It’s simply that I have some idea about it deep inside that I must bring out because I want to take advantage of it.”
For all of Ponge’s insistence on object-reverence, “Notes for a Bird” actually peers through the bird to the quality of the person speaking of it. “For man to really take possession of nature,” he says, “for him to direct it, dominate it, he must accumulate within himself the qualities of each thing.” This is how I interpret the statement “I want to take advantage of it.” The man is empowered, through the force of language, to leverage the thing-ness for his own elevation. To be a powerful thing among the evil forces. “The poet is a moralist who separates the qualities of the object then recomposes them.” The bird leaves an impression of “great levity and extreme fragility … little more than a cage, a very light, very airy chassis,” an analog for Ponge’s output. This is why the wasp is described as carrying out “an intimate activity that’s generally quite mysterious. Quite astute. What we call having an inner life … Betraying an exaggerated sensibility … susceptible as well perhaps because of the very precious, all too precious, character of the cargo she bears: which merits her frenzy, her awareness of its value.” We read through the wasp to the man. But sometimes, we only find the wasp: “Analogy between a wasp and an electric streetcar. Something mute in repose and vocal in action. Also something of a short train, with first and second classes, or rather the engine and the observation car. And of a sizzling trolley. Sizzling like a deep fry, like an (effervescent) chemical reaction.” The comparison is delightful, even if it is something of a tart confection.
So the mimosas, wasps, birds, carnations and pine woods don’t inspire Ponge. Then what does it mean to “comprehend an object”? He writes, “Instead of feelings or human ventures, I choose as subjects the most indifferent objects possible … where the guarantee of the need for expression appears to me (instinctively) to reside in the object’s habitual mutism.” This is simply a preference for the kind of subject matter that best “guarantees” the ignition of his own engine. Feelings or human ventures have been spoken of elsewhere in given forms. Ponge speaks of the oyster, the cigarette, a cut of meat, each of which offers a back entrance to a more refined human feeling. Nevertheless, he undercuts the presumed status of literature by mocking his own performance. He must not pretend to achieve too much (he needn’t worry). “Some day a fine critic will surely happen along,” he says, “perceptive enough to reproach me for this eruption into literature by my wasp in a manner that’s
Ponge became a darling of postmodernism not so much for his spare descriptive prose (he insisted that he wasn’t a poet and didn’t write poetry, and he was correct) but for his statements of intention. “What matters to me is the serious application with which I approach the object, and on the other hand the extreme precision of expression,” he writes. “But I must rid myself of a tendency to say things that are flat and conventional,” thereby admitting he had achieved only the first half of his goal: being serious about the theory. But Mute Objects of Expression is filled with wonderful strings of sentences. Also, it includes correspondence between Ponge and Gabriel Audisio (and others) who wrote, “I cannot help deploring that your ‘heroism’ in facing the problem of expression nonetheless wound up leading you into a sort of impasse.” But the impasse was the whole point to Ponge – the attempt somehow to squeeze or slither through with freed and precise language. Ponge responded, “No! G.A. has (apparently) failed to understand that it is much less a matter of the birth of the poem than an attempted assassination (far from successful) of a poem by its object” – as if the object were finally getting a meager measure of revenge.
I wonder where all of the carefully observed objects have gone in poetry – the willingness to let a poem hinge on the decisive aspect of things. Calvino says, “In Ponge language, that indispensable medium linking subject and object, is constantly compared with what objects express outside language, and that in this comparison it is reassessed and redefined – and often revalued.” And sometimes devalued among us, his followers. The modest production of Ponge promises something beyond itself, and we love him for the dream of pure potential and the fresh chill of its near presence, even as his cherished objects pass by. Yet Ponge is invoked even by those poets (drunk on theory, ideology, or workshop trends) who treat the object with indifference. Perhaps he would have concurred with Randall Jarrell’s assessment:
“Malraux, drunk with our age, can say about Cézanne: ‘It is not the mountain he wants to realize but the picture.’ All that Cezanne said and did was not enough to make Malraux understand what no earlier age could have failed to understand: that to Cézanne the realization of the picture necessarily involved the realization of the mountain. And whether we like it or not, notice or not, the mountain is still there to be realized. Man and the world are all that they ever were – their attractions are, in the end, irresistible; the painter will not hold out against them for long.”
[Published June 1, 2008, 165 pp., $17.00, paperback]