Toward an Infrathin Reading/Writing Practice

The impetus for writing this book was an invitation I received in 2017 from Ronald Schuchard, the Director of the London T. S. Eliot Summer School, to give the annual address at Little Gidding, on the fourth of the Four Quartets, which bears that title.

These self-portraits (a selection of nine from a series of twelve) are reproduced from Rabindrachitravali: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore (Volume 2) by R Siva Kumar, courtesy the author. They comprise Tagore’s abiding fascination with two artistic concepts defined by Marcel Duchamp, though it’s hard to know if Tagore knew of him: the ‘found object’ or ‘readymade’; and – the subject of the essay below – the ‘infrathin’. The ‘readymade’ is an already-existing object reframed as ‘art’: in this case, copies of a particular issue of Visva-Bharati News. The ‘infrathin’ is an aesthetic to do with repetition and difference; the conviction that – as Borges’s essay on the fictional scholar Pierre Menard demonstrated – identical things are radically dissimilar, and the difference between them is subtle and undeniable. Some such principle preoccupies Tagore as he playfully ‘defaces’ his own cover photo in the birthday number of the Visva-Bharati News, working on each with renewed zeal to produce a series that foresees Warhol’s experiments with cans of Campbell soup and Marilyn Monroe’s face. R Siva Kumar says that ‘these paintings were done using coloured inks and opaque watercolour. The ink was probably applied with brushes and in some cases what looks like reed pen. There doesn’t seem to be use of normal fountain pen in these paintings.’

Toward an Infrathin Reading/Writing Practice

An excerpt from the introduction to Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics

Marjorie Perloff

Hegel seems to me to be always wanting to say that things
which look different are really the same. Whereas my
interest is in showing that things which look the same are
really different.
–Ludwig Wittgenstein1

A changed feature in the similar can change the entire
system by its dissimilarity.
— Viktor Shklovsky2

The impetus for writing this book was an invitation I received in 2017 from Ronald Schuchard, the Director of the London T. S. Eliot Summer School, to give the annual address at Little Gidding, on the fourth of the Four Quartets, which bears that title. I have long loved Eliot’s earlier poetry, but the Quartets always struck me as too contrived in their exposition of Christian doctrine. And yet I had to admit that ‘Little Gidding’ contains some of Eliot’s most striking and memorable lines and phrases like ‘To purify the dialect of the tribe’ or ‘the conscious impotence of rage’—phrases that took on a life of their own and often became book or film titles. Still, such high points could hardly account for the continuing popularity of the Four Quartets.

Much has been made of the ‘musical’ structure of the Quartets, which has been found to resemble the four-part structure of specific quartets by composers from Beethoven to Bartok. But such considerations of external form, it struck me, hardly got to the heart of the matter: other Modernist poets wrote ‘fugues,’ ‘quartets,’ and so on, and never quite caught the audience’s fancy as has Eliot’s sequence. Is the appeal related to its distinctive imagery? I don’t think so, because the poem’s predominantly Christian symbolism from the rose garden of ‘Burnt Norton’ to the refining fire of ‘Little Gidding’ is rather less original or memorable than, say, the conceit of the evening sky as ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ from the early ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’

It is, I would submit, at the microlevel that the brilliance of ‘Little Gidding’ manifests itself. As an examination of the revisions bears out, every phoneme, every morpheme, word, phrase, rhythm, and syntactic contour has been chosen with an eye to creating a brilliant verbal, visual, and sound structure. Etymology and homology also play a central role so that everything in the poem relates to everything else in surprising and remarkable ways.

In charting the poem’s micropoetics, I was especially aware of what Marcel Duchamp refers to as the infrathin (inframince).3 In his famous Notes on the subject,4 Duchamp declares with his characteristic irony that one cannot define the infrathin, one can only give examples of it. Some of Duchamp’s examples are playful:

The warmth of a seat (which has just been left) is infrathin.

Sliding doors of the Metro—the people who pass through at the very last moment/ infrathin.

Velvet trousers—their whistling sound (in walking) by brushing of the 2 legs – is an infrathin separation signaled by sound.

When the tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the 2 orders marry by infrathin.

The infrathin separation between the detonation noise of a gun (very close)and the apparition of the bullet hole in the target.

But others raise larger issues about time, space, and especially language:

Infrathin (adjective) not a name—never make of it a noun.

In time the same object is not the same after a one-second interval.

The difference between the contact water and molten lead make with the walls of a given container is infra-thin.

Two men are not an example of identity and on the contrary diverge with an infrathin difference that can be evaluated.

It would be better to go into the infrathin interval which separates two ‘identicals,’ than to conveniently accept the verbal generalization which makes 2 twins look like 2 drops of water.

The difference (dimensional) between two objects in a series (made from the same mould) is an infrathin one when the maximum (?) of precision is attained.5 [see figure 1]

Notice that in each of these examples, the case is made for difference, however minute, between an A and a B. Adjectives are not equivalent to nouns and shouldn’t be used as such (although Duchamp himself quickly shifts from infrathin [adjective] to noun [the infrathin]. The singular is not the plural, the present tense not the past. A second-long interval can be the decisive one. And, perhaps most importantly, even two or more objects in a series made from the same mold are not, in fact, identical.

This last ‘definition’ recalls Wittgenstein’s question in the Philosophical Investigations: ‘But isn’t the same at least the same?’6 The answer, for Wittgenstein, as for Duchamp, is always no: however miniscule the difference between one word or phrase or statement and another, the ‘difference,’ as Gertrude Stein puts it in Tender Buttons, ‘is spreading.’ 7 As Stein shows us in her endlessly complex iterative prose, the slightest repetition or shift in context changes the valence and meaning of any word or word group. A rose is a rose is a rose. And by the third enunciation, it is already something else. As the noted theorist of rhythm Henri Meschonnic put it with regard to music, a repeated phrase is never the same phrase as any of the previous instances precisely because they have already been heard, and the listener, by having already heard them, is different.8

Duchamp’s short and often enigmatic maxims here and elsewhere are always a shade tongue-in-cheek. He tells us that infrathin cannot be a concept—the word can only be exemplified—but of course his witty examples do add up to a concept. Moreover, Duchamp knows only too well that he is exaggerating, but exaggeration seems necessary at a time when it would seem generalization —the generalizations of the social sciences, of the media, of political discourse — have prevailed over any other discourse. And if the generalizing habit was already prominent in the 1930s when Duchamp wrote his infrathin notes, think of what it is like one hundred years later.

Here are a few extracts from President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory speech — but it could be anyone’s— on November 7, 2020:

To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.

The plan will be built on a bedrock of science.It will be constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern.

We must make the promise real for everybody—no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity, or their disability.

And now, together—on eagle’s wings—we embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do.

This is the standard language that bombards us day and night on the media—a language of abstraction and dead metaphor. “Americans” can’t be our “enemies,” “science” and “history” are somehow equated with all that is good, and “disablity is used as a basic marker of identity, like “race,” “ethnicity,” and “faith,” even as “identity,” in this context, is merely redundant. Add the dead metaphors “bedrock” and “eagle’s wings” and you have the sort of verbal stew Duchamp would have loved to submit to verbal play. His response is what he called it “a kind of pictorial nominalism”:

Nominalism [literal]= No more generic specific numeric distinction between words (tables is not the plural of table, ate has nothing in common with eat). No more physical adaptation of concrete words; no more conceptual value of abstract words. The word also loses its musical value. It is only readable (due to being made up of consonants and vowels), it is readable by eye and little by little takes on a form of plastic significance; it is a sensorial reality a plastic truth with the same title as a line, as a group of lines. (1914)10

Readable by eye. The poet, Duchamp here implies, is one who understands that “ate has nothing in common with eat,’ that the same is never the same, and that hence every word, every morpheme and phoneme and every rhythmic form chosen makes a difference. To be a poet, in other words, is to draw on the verbal pool we all share but to choose one’s words and phrases with an eye to unexpected relationships—verbal, visual, sonic– that create a new construct and context—relationships that create infrathin possibilities. And not only the poet: the reader in turn comes to ‘poetry’ with an eye and ear for such telling difference. Indeed poetry might be defined as the art of the infrathin—the art in which difference is more important than similarity. Consider as well-known a line as ‘April is the cruellest month.’ Suppose it were ‘April is the darkest month’ or the ‘harshest month’ or the ‘worst month of the year’? Would the effect be the same? And if not, why not? Does ‘cruellest’ stand out because, unlike the other adjectives, it connotes human agency? And does the echo of April’s il sound in the word ‘cruellest’ make a difference?

Consider the context. Words, as we use them, don’t appear alone: they are embedded in phrases, clauses and, in poetry, in lines: ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.’ What strange line breaks, all of them following present participles—breeding, mixing, stirring– and these participles have surprising objects: how is it, for example, that the ‘dead land’ breeds ‘lilacs’? Then again, ‘breeding,’ in Duchampian terms (one thinks of his famous glasswork Dust Breeding of 1920), is not the same as ‘bred.’ The emphasis on the ongoing—an emphasis countered by the stoppage produced the curious line breaks — is what gives the opening of The Waste Land its particular frisson.

The Question of Formalisms

To understand how micropoetics can operate, I want to lay to rest two possible misconceptions regarding the infrathin project. The first is that the close differential reading Duchamp advocates is like the ‘close reading’ of the New Criticism, which dominated the American literary scene, and especially the Academy, from the late 1930s to at least the mid-1960s. In fact, there is little relationship between the two. A text like Cleanth Brooks’s The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), which served as a kind of bible for the movement, was based on the principle that, as Brooks’s opening chapter explains it, the language of poetry is the language of paradox. In John Donne’s ‘The Canonization,’ Brooks’s Exhibit A, ‘the basic metaphor’— and metaphor is at the very heart of poetry—“which underlies the poem . . . involves a sort of paradox:

For the poet daringly treats profane love as if it were divine love. The Canonization is not that of a pair of holy anchorites who have renounced the world and the flesh. The hermitage of each is the other’s body; but they do renounce the world, and so their title to sainthood is cunningly argued. The poem then is a parody of Christian
Sainthood; but it is an intensely serious parody….11

Note that the underlying assumption here is that poetry is designed to convey a special meaning. That meaning, as Brooks makes clear throughout, is not scientific meaning—it is not a question of facts or information—but a meaning only poetry can convey. Structure, in other words, is always semantic structure. Thus even The Waste Land, with all its complexities, so Brooks explains in his earlier Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), is ‘built on a major contrast—a device that is a favourite of Eliot’s. . . . The contrast is between two kinds of life and two kinds of death. Life devoid of meaning is death; sacrifice, even the sacrificial death, may be life-giving, an awakening to life. The poem occupies itself to a great extent with this paradox, and with a number of variations upon it.’ And again, ‘The basic method used in The Waste Land may be described as the application of the principle of complexity. The poet works in terms of surface parallelisms which in reality make ironic contrasts, and in terms of surface contrasts which in reality constitute parallelisms. . . . The two aspects taken together give the effect of chaotic experience ordered into a new whole.’12

Brooks gives a masterly exposition of the way each section in The Waste Land—say, ‘The Game of Chess’ (Part II)—reiterates the central Christian paradox, but although Chapter 11 of The Well-Wrought Urn is called “The Heresy of Paraphrase’ and insists that the language of a particular poem cannot be altered without destroying its complexity, and that, hence, prose paraphrase is not possible, the fact remains that what matters to Brooks—and this was true of such fellow New Critics as Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and R. P. Blackmur—is an extricable and larger meaning—a meaning conveyed, in successful cases, by means of metaphor, irony, and paradox—the tropes of indirection. Rhythm, sound structure, visual patterning, etymology—these are all but ignored.

There are certain exceptions: in The Verbal Icon, whose subtitle is Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, W. K. Wimsatt has some brilliant chapters on rhyme and rhetorical features in the poetry of Alexander Pope, and on the historical evolution of symbolic imagery from late eighteenth century poets like William Bowles to Wordsworth. But even here, sound structure and rhetorical device are always secondary, a given antithesis or chiasmus being designed to convey the particular verbal ambiguity that belongs to poetry. Indeed, metaphor was judged to be so essential to poetry, that such Modernists as William Carlos Williams, whose lyric is given to literal language, metonymy and visual design, were dismissed by the New Critics as wholly negligible. As for Ezra Pound, whose poetry could hardly be said to order ‘chaotic experience’ into ‘new wholes,’ the Cantos were dismissed, for example by Blackmur, as no more than a ‘rag-bag’ of miscellaneous items.

The radical difference we associate with the infrathin was thus precisely what the New Criticism tried to suppress: its close readings were pointedly not so close as to open up the text to particular contradictions or to explore the role context plays in the reception of a given text. Accordingly, only certain poets could count: Donne rather than Milton, Keats rather than Shelley; among American Modernists, Robert Frost and later Robert Lowell, but never Robert Creeley.

A closer analogue to the practice of micropoetics may be found in the groundbreaking work of the Russian Formalists, who remain, a century after they wrote their key texts, perhaps the most important theorists of poetics in the Modern period. This is not the place to give a lengthy account of what is a complex set of theoretical models; I want merely to point to the key elements that have directed my own thinking on the subject.

For starters, it is important to remember that Roman Jakobson, probably the most famous of the Russian Formalists, began his career as a poet, in alliance with the Futurists Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchyonykh, both of whom made a strong case for the primacy of form over content in poetry. ‘Genuine novelty in literature,’ wrote Kruchyonykh, ‘does not depend upon content. . . .If there is a new form, there must also exist a new content.’14 From these poets’ doctrine of the emancipation of the word and especially on Khlebnikov’s close study of morphology and poetic neologism, Jakobson developed his now well-known doctrine of literaturnost’ (literariness) rather than the broader category literature as the object of the poet’s study. If the central question was to be ‘What makes a verbal message a work of art?’ it followed that questions of sound and visual form were just as important as questions of meaning. And so we get the axiom, ‘In poetry, any conspicuous similarity in sound is evaluated in respect to similarity and / or dissimilarity in meaning.’15

But, one may well ask, isn’t Jakobson’s insistence on the separation of the aesthetic from all other textual functions the very antithesis of Duchamp’s nagging question, ‘Can one make works that are not works of ‘art’?’16 Yes and no. In his first interview with Pierre Cabanne (1966), Duchamp remarks:

I shy away from the word ‘creation.’ In the ordinary, social meaning of the word—well, it’s very nice but, fundamentally, I don’t believe in the creative function of the artist. He’s a man like any other. It’s his job to do certain things, but the businessman does certain things also, you understand? On the other hand, the word ‘art’ interests me very much. If it comes from Sanskrit, as I’ve heard, it signifies ‘making.’17

The notion of making—poiesis—presented no problems to Duchamp: it is the second term art that he found unsatisfactory. For centuries, he understood, art had referred primarily to one particular visual art—painting; indeed, the two words have often been used interchangeably, as in such book titles as The Art of Henri Matisse. And even the radical new art of Cubism referred to a style of painting, give or take the occasional sculpture made by Picasso or Braqueas well as painting cognates like drawing, watercolor, etching, etc.

But suppose, Duchamp posited, one substitutes for the common synecdoche ‘the painter’s hand’—the individual talent to deploy line and color (or, in the case of poetry, the expressive power of words to convey unique personal emotion)—the appropriation and reconfiguration of items already in existence? In the case of Duchamp’s own readymades, beginning with the urinal called Fountain by R. Mutt, an ordinary plumbing-store object, later photographed by Alfred Stieglitz against a backdrop that earned it the sly name Madonna of the Bathroom (see Chap 1, fig 1), choice and framing—often by infrathin means—meant everything. And gradually, Duchamp sensed, such ‘conceptual’ works would come to be recognized as ‘works of “art”,’ comparable to their seemingly antithetical counterparts.

Duchamp also coined the related term delay. ‘The Bride’ was ‘a delay in glass’ (Salt Seller 26) as were the ‘Nine Malic Moulds.’ ‘It was the poetic aspect of the words that I liked,’ Duchamp tells Cabanne, ‘I wanted to give “delay” a poetic sense that I couldn’t even explain. It was to avoid saying, “a glass painting,” “a glass drawing”. . . .The word “delay” pleased me at that point, like a phrase one discovers. It was really poetic, in the most Mallarméan sense of the word, so to speak’ (Cabanne, 40).

Duchamp gives no explanation beyond these words, but I think what he had in mind is the delay, not as the art object itself, but as the perception of the viewer/reader who confronts it, the delay that occurs when that viewer tries to take in what s/he is seeing. As such, a delay would be a temporal infrathin as in the ‘velvet trousers’ or gunshot examples above. In Jakobsonian terms, the delay would occur when we try to understand how the perceived similarity of sound in a given poem relates to a comparable similarity in meaning. It is the interval we experience as we recognize that even the same is not the same.

Russian Formalist studies, we should note, never came around to studying the new hybrid art forms of the twentieth century like the readymade, the installation, the ‘found’ or appropriated poem, and so on. But within literary confines, their understanding of language operations was profound. ‘The word,’ wrote Jurij Tynjanov in 1924, ‘does not exist outside of a sentence. An isolated word is not found in a nonphrasal environment. Rather it is found in a different environment from the word in a sentence. If we pronounce an isolated “dictionary” word, we do not obtain the “basic word,” a pure, lexical word, but simply a word in new circumstances.’ And Tynjanov gives the example of the Russian word zemlja [earth, soil, land, ground]:

1. Zemlja and Mars; heaven and zemlja(tellus).
2. Bury an object in the zemlja; black zemlja (humus).
3. It fell to the zemlja (Boden).
4. Native zemlja (Land)

However various the meanings of zemlja here, the ‘unity of the lexical category’—what Wittgenstein was to call family resemblances—allows a native speaker to construe the meaning in each instance without much difficulty.18 But, as Tynjanov understood, it is the poet who know how to make the most of the subtle, and sometimes contradictory, meanings zemlja can have and can relate that word to its cognates. In a brilliant essay, itself a kind of prose poem, called ‘Z and Its Environs’ (1915), Khlebnikov considered the curious number of z-wordsrelating to the nature of reflection:

Names for universal reflectors: zeml’ia [earth], zvezdy [stars]’ ziry, another word for stars, zen’, another word for Earth. The ancient exclamation ‘zirin’ may possibly have meant ‘to the stars.’ The Earth and the stars all shine by reflected light. The word zen’, which means both Earth and eye, and the word ziry, which means both star and eye, demonstrate that both Earth and stars are understood to be universal reflectors….

In wintertime the earth reflects rays, and so that season of the year is called zima [winter]. In summer it swallows them up, But where do they go, these rays of summer? They too become reflected, in complicated ways, and these types of summer reflections, rays reflected by the universal mirror, also begin with z.

And now Khlebnikov goes on to list metonymic z nouns designating summer heat and vegetation, culminating in the insight that:

Zem [earth] is the eternal reflector upon which people live. If zen’ means eye, then zem is the majestic zen’ of the nighttime sky: compareten’ [shadow] and tem’ [darkness]. The other reflecting points of the black night sky are ziry and zvezdy [stars].19

Here is the play of differences—first the variations on z words and then zemversus tem’—that furnish Khlebnikov with his poetic arsenal in all its infrathin manifestation.

Further important studies of context—this time in more ordinary situations—were made by the Prague Linguistic Circle. Jan Mukařovskýreminds us that a simple sentence like ‘It’s getting dark,’ made as a statement by A to B at a specific time and place, means very differently when the same sentence ‘is conceived as a poetic quotation.’ ‘The focal point of our attention,’ Mukařovský notes, ‘will immediately become its relation to the surrounding contexture, even if it is only an assumed one.’20

The same would be true for the examples of infrathin Duchamp gives in his Notes: for example, the changing texture of the walls of a given container.

The Russian Formalists were at their best in their earlier relatively informal texts: Jakobson’s ‘On a Generation that Squandered its Poets,’ for example, written in 1931 in response to Mayakovsky’s suicide, is surely one of the most profound texts ever written on how poetic strength can become dissipated and ultimately end in self-destruction. And Viktor Shklovsky’s famous discussion of ostranenie (‘making strange’) and faktura (density) have become classics.21 Later Formalist works like Jakobson’s exhaustive analysis of the two versions of Yeats’s ‘The Sorrow of Love’ (see Linguistics and Poetics) are perhaps less suggestive because they are exhaustively empiricist, the study counting such things as every instance of the article ‘The’ and so on. Literary criticism, I would posit, will never be an exact science, and Jakobson was at his best when he did not try to give an exhaustive account of every part of speech or syllable count in a given poem. Then, too, as Henri Meschonnic insisted, Jakobsonian theory emphasizes system at the expense of individual enunciation, thus playing down the dominant role context plays in meaning-making.22

The notion of literary art as a ‘labyrinth of linkages’ (Shklovsky)
was developed by later poet-critics, for example, the Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos. Elaborating on Jakobson’s insistence that ‘any phonological coincidence is felt to mean semantic kinship,’ de Campos gives the following French example:

Whereas for the referential use of language it makes no difference whether the word astre (star) can be found with the adjective désastreux (‘disastrous’) or the noun désastre(‘disaster’)… for the poet this kind of ‘discovery’ is of prime relevance.’23

The (unstated) reference is to Baudelaire’s ‘Le Voyage’:

Nous avons vu des astres Et des flots, nous avons vu des sables aussi; Et malgré bien des chocs et d’imprévus désastres Nous nous sommes souvent ennuyés, commei ci….

In my literal translation:

We have seen stars And seas, we have seen sands too; And despite many shocks and unforeseen disasters We have often been bored, as we are here. . . .

Here the rhyming astres (stars) and désastres (disasters) are presented as alternatives. Neither the exotic and beautiful vistas nor the myriad dangers encountered on the poet’s journey can allay the terrible ennui of modern life. But the noun désastreis formed by combining the negative prefix des or dis with astron (Greek for ‘star’); the reference, in other words, is to the negative role of the stars—to that which is ill-starred. So in fact, astres and désastres, nouns unrelated in ordinary discourse, do go together. In poetry as de Campos puts it, this time citing the sinologist Ernest Fenollosa who was Pound’s mentor, ‘relations are more important than the things related’ (298).

Relatedness: de Campos may well be thinking of his own long poem Galáxias or of Pound’s Cantos, where the juxtaposition and orchestration of individual motifs is perhaps at the furthest possible removal from any kind of prose paraphrase or discussion as to what the poem is ‘about.’ But the process is of course also at work in more traditional lyric poems like Baudelaire’s ‘Le Voyage’ cited above. One reason Baudelaire is so difficult to translate is that the rhymes—like astres/désastres—and rhetorical figures contain so much indirect and paragrammatic meaning. Here is the famous opening stanza of ‘Le Voyage’:

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit. Ah! Que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes! Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!

Literally: ‘For the child who loves maps and stamps, / The universe is equal to his vast appetite. / Ah! how large the world is by the light of the lamp!/ In the eyes of memory, how the world is small.’

‘Le Voyage’ is written in four-line stanzas comprised of alexandrines (the traditional twelve-syllable line, dominant in French poetry till the beginning of the twentieth-century), rhyming abab. But English, not being an inflected language, makes rhyming much more difficult, and few of Baudelaire’s translators have attempted to retain the rhyme scheme. Here are three translations, all of them by poets:

1. Roy Campbell

For children crazed with maps and prints and stamps— The universe can sate their appetite. How vast the world is by the light of lamps, But in the eyes of memory how slight!

2. Richard Howard:

The child enthralled by lithographs and map can satisfy his hunger for the world. how limitless it is beneath the lamp, and how it shrinks in the eyes of memory!

3. Keith Waldrop:

For the child who likes maps and stamps, the universe is a match for his vast appetite. Ah! how large the world is in lamplight! In memory’s eye how the world is small.24

Campbell is the only one of the three to adopt Baudelaire’s rhyme scheme, but his rhymes don’t have Baudelaire’s semantic charge, of which more in a moment, and his shift from singular to plural in line 1 (‘children’), as well as the addition of the gratuitous noun ‘prints,’ are problematic. Then, too, Campbell does not reproduce the brilliant chiasmus in lines 3-4:

Ah! que le monde estgrandeà la clarté des lampes! Aux yeux du souvenirque le monde est petit!

The chiasmus is similarly lost in Richard Howard’s rather lackluster translation, which avoids rhyme and substitutes “lithographs” for stamps in line 1—a change that makes no sense since this child is obviously a stamp collector. And the fourth line, ‘and how it shrinks in the eyes of memory’, dissolves Baudelaire’s tight sound structure into a prosaic comment. Keith Waldrop’s is the most literal of the three and he does keep the chiasmus of the original, but, as a prose strophe (or ‘verset’ as Waldrop calls it), the translation cannot reproduce the drama and tautness of the original.

Indeed, no translation can reproduce the effect of Baudelaire’s rhymes. Take ‘appétit’/ ‘petit’ in lines 2/4. The word ‘appétit’ comes from the Latin past participle, ‘appetitus’ of the verb ‘appetere’ —(ad)petere-to desire, to long for. ‘Appetite’ is a hunger for something: it is a strong emotion. In rhyming ‘appétit’ with ‘petit’ —small—the poem anticipates what will gradually be shown to be the case: that in the course of one’s life human appetite will be rewarded by only the smallest of satisfactions. A similar effect is met in stanza 2, where ‘les désirs amérs’ (bitter desires) rhymes with ‘des mers’ (seas), the implication being that the longed for exotic waters of distant oceans turn out to be the site of mere bitterness.

It is such verbal play, often discernible only on a second or third reading, that gives Baudelaire’s poems their special frisson as well as their great memorability. And we might note that he is also a master of indeterminacy: ‘à la clarté des lampes’ refers to the light of the lamp beneath which the child is looking at his stamps and maps. But ‘clarté’ also means ‘clarity’: in childhood, things seem so clear; the grown-up must learn otherwise. The English ‘lamplight’ (Waldrop) cannot convey the subtlety of meaning. For the Anglophone reader, there is no good solution; but the recognition that in translation infrathin shades of meaning may well be lost can stimulate the translator to produce parallel constructions that may well be satisfying.

‘A Mania for Change’

‘In time the same object is not the same after a one-second interval.’ The infrathin, Duchamp insisted, is always temporal as well as spatial. And the artist himself was extremely sensitive to historical change as it affected his own work. In the interviews with Cabanne, he recalls, in great detail, how eager he was, in the early 1910s, to separate himself from the Cubists, who were becoming the rage of the avant-garde. ‘I tried constantly,’ Duchamp tells Cabanne, ‘to find something which would not recall what had happened before. I have had an obsession about not using the same things…. it was a constant battle to make an exact and complete break’ (38).

Why this ‘mania for change’? Duchamp’s detractors have suggested that he realized his early paintings could not compete with those of Picasso or Braque, and that hence he had to find something else to get recognition. But a more charitable interpretation would be that Duchamp somehow understood that even the painting of Picasso, however formally inventive, was still painting in the great ‘retinal’ tradition initiated by Courbet in the nineteenth century. Even his own Nude Descending a Staircase was, Duchamp came to feel, too ‘Cubist’ (Cabanne 34):

Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina! That was everyone’s error. The retinal shudder! Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral.

… [I]t unfortunately hasn’t changed much; our whole century is

completely retinal, except for the Surrealists, who tried to go outside it somewhat. And still, they didn’t go so far.(43)

The turning point for Duchamp was the Munich year of 1912, when he came in contact with an entirely different set of artists, working under the influence of Kandinsky and the latter’s On the Spiritual in Art; Duchamp also spent hours in the Alte Pinakothek, studying the Cranachs and became interested in Renaissance perspective, which Apollinaire and the Cubists had so vociferiously rejected.25 Aloofness became Duchamp’s signature stance: in the early 1920s, when the Dadaists tried to claim him as a kindred spirit, he carefully kept his distance. Thus, when Tristan Tzara asked him to send something to the 1921 Dada Salon in Paris, Duchamp responded that he had nothing on hand, and that anyway the verb to exhibit (exposer) sounded too much like the verb to marry (épouser).26 ‘From afar, he wrote to Ettie Stettheimer, ‘these things, these Movements are enhanced with a charm which they don’t have in close proximity.’

Exposer / épouser: here is an early instance of the punning, word play, and ‘infrathin’ Duchamp would produce for the rest of his life: in 1920 he had already made the readymade French window called Fresh Widow. But to understand these works, it helps to see them, as Duchamp himself did, in their historical context. A meaningful close reading cannot exist in the abstract, as it oftendid in the work of the New Critics and Russian Formalists. In my own essays, in any case, I regular place the formalist problem at hand in an historical frame or context. Indeed, each of the following chapters may be said to have a twin purpose: (1) to show that an ‘infrathin’ reading of particular Modernist works—many of them very well-known—can remind us what it is that makes poetry poetry, and (2) to engage in revisionist history regarding the poetry in question, placing it in new contexts and suggesting unexpected alignments.

Notes for Introduction

1. M. O’C. Drury, “Conversations with Wittgenstein,” in Rush Rhees (ed.), Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Littlefield, 1981), 112-190; see p. 171.

2. Viktor Shklovsky, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, trans. Shushan Avagyan (Champaign, Ill: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011),57.

3. Duchamp sometimes hyphenates infra-mince, but on the whole he leaves the word whole, so I follow his practice here.

4. Marcel Duchamp, Notes, ed. Paul Matisse (Paris: Flammarion, 1999). The forty-six Notes on “Inframince” are found on pp.20-47. As of this writing there is not yet an English edition, but the various Notes crop up in many writings on and museum exhibitions of Duchamp. The best discussion of the concept which is not, strictly speaking, a concept—one can only exemplify the inframince (infrathin)– is that of Thierry de Duve in Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan (1984; Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1991), 159-63.

5. All these examples come from Notes, 21-33. Translations Thierry de Duve’s or my own.

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §215.

7. Gertrude Stein, “A Carafe that is a Blind Glass,” Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, ed. Seth Perlow (San Francisco: City Lights, 2014), 11.

8. Marko Pajević, “Meschonnic’s Theory of Rhythm, his Key Concepts and their Relation,” The HenryMeschonnic Reader, ed Marko Pajević (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), 22.

9. 1914 note for the White Box (A l’Infinitif), in The Esssential Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel / Salt Seller), ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson(London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), 78. Subsequently cited as Salt Seller).

10. Duchamp, Notes, 115; for English translation, see Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 126.

11. Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947), 11.

12. Cleanth Brooks, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939: New York: Oxford, 1965), 137, 167.

13. W. K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon (1954; New York: Noonday Press, 1958).

14. Cited by Roman Jakobson in New Russian Poetry (Prague, 1921), 7-8; see Victor Ehrlich, Russian Formalism: History and Doctrine , 4th ed. (The Hague: Mouton 1980), 44-45.

15. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 62– , p. 87 and passim.

16. Salt Seller, 74.

17. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 16.

18. Jurij Tynjanov, “The Meaning of the Word in Verse,” in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. Ladislav Matejka and
Krystyna Pomorska (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), 136-45; see pp. 136-37.

19. Velimir Khlebnikov, “Z and Its Environs,” Collected Works: Volume 1: Letters and Theoretical Writings, trans. Paul Schmidt, ed. Charlotte Douglas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 304-06.

20. Jan Mukarovsky, “Two Studies of Poetic Designation,” The Word and Verbal Art: Selected Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 65-80; see p. 66.

21. See Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, 2d ed., ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), ; Maria Gouch, “Faktura: The Making of the Russian Avant-Garde,” Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics.36 (1999), 32–59.

22. See Henri Meschonnic Reader, 63-64, and cf. Wittgenstein, “The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” which is the cornerstone of his Philosophical Investigations.

23. Haroldo de Campos, “Poetic Function and the Ideogram: The Sinological Argument,” trans Kevin Mundy and Mark Benson (1981); Haroldo de Campos, Novas, Selected Writings, ed. Antonio Sergio Bessa and Odile Cisneros (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 287-311; see pp. 294-95.

24. Roy Campbell, “The Voyage,” Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, ed. Marthiel and Jackson Mathews (New York: New Directions, 1958), 133; Charles Baudelaire, “Travellers,” Les Fleurs du Mal, trans. Richard Howard (Boston: David R. Godine, 1982),151-57; Charles Baudelaire, “The Voyage,” The Flowers of Evil, trans. Keith Waldrop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006): 178-202.

25. On the significance of Duchamp’s Munich year, see esp. Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, 96-118.

26. See Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), 236-37; Marjorie Perloff, “Dada without Duchamp / Duchamp without Dada: Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Stanford Humanities Review, 7.1 (1999): 48-78;Perloff, “The Conceptual Poetics of Marcel Duchamp, Twenty-First Century Modernism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 202), 77-120.

Before her retirement, Marjorie Perloff was the Sadie Denham Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University and Florence Scott Professor of English at Univ. of Southern California. She is the author of many books on poetry and poetics including Unoriginal Genius and Wittgenstein’s Ladder, as well as a memoir The Vienna Paradox and study of Austro-Modernism, The Edge of Irony.

This is an excerpt from the introduction to Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics, by Marjorie Perloff, to be published in 2021 by the University of Chicago Press.

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