Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Paratexts and the inexpressible nothing

What meaning have yesterday’s conclusions today? They have have the same meaning as yesterday, are true, except that the blood is oozing away in the chinks between the great stones of the law. Franz Kafka, Diaries 19 January 1922.

Even before I knew it was a specialism in literary studies, paratexts fascinated me. Paratexts are the material of a book other than the actual text: blurbs, titles, subtitles, dedications, epigrams, that sort of thing, even the author’s photo or lack of it. When I began a PhD thesis on literary distance (Blanchot calls it "the silence unique to literature"), I used a digression on epigrams to delay the main work. I asked: how should one regard these thresholds of texts? Who is speaking in them and why? Is an epigram being used to clothe an otherwise naked text? Were they meant only to direct our reading, or are there deeper issues involved? The questions piled up. (At the time I didn’t know they were called paratexts. In fact, I didn’t know they were called paratexts until about two weeks ago when I read about Gérard Genette’s book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. I emphasise that I read about it; the book is over £30 to buy and impossible to borrow. Is the price a paratext?).

I abandoned the PhD for the same reason as I began it: distance. There was too much of not enough to say. But mainly, I didn’t want to write within the contraints demanded by scholarship. I felt that it repressed the real, existing nausea within the subject under discussion. Repression seemed to be the reason for the constraints. The spaces within that discussion remained undiscussed. They remained distant. Paratexts seem to offer a way in to these spaces, but take one look at an example of the specialist literature and nausea will likely become liquid filling your mouth too.

I felt a similar nausea watching non-Nazi Pope Benedict XVI’s inauguration. As he intoned the Latin phrases, I got the impression of witnessing (no pun intended) a mass Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: rituals with no metaphysical bearing (anymore), yet because they are so deeply embedded, they afford the illusion of order and of hope. Paratexts do the same thing. Narrative does the same thing. No doubt this is a good thing: we read (or at least I read) to rediscover each time the gift of order and of hope. But the idea of this good thing is often ritualised itself and anything that might contradict or disrupt this idea has to be out-flanked by paratexts. It can take the form of introductions, blurbs, quotations from reviews, even the design of the cover. In this way the work itself becomes a paratext of its paratexts.

Example: I began to read a translation of Guiseppe Ungaretti’s poetry in the clean, seductive and beautiful edition published by Carcanet. It has a generous introduction by Andrew Frisardi, the translator. Yet after 19 pages of background information, commentary and a definition of Hermeticism, the first poem is only eleven words long (twelve if you count the title)!

Between one flower plucked and the other given
the inexpressible nothing

The collection from which this is taken is called L’allegria or Joy. I smiled, at least, for this morning’s post brought Edith Grossmann’s much-praised translation of Don Quixote. It has 940 pages and – oh God! - an introduction by Harold Bloom. Yes, I want to read it, but I often think one cannot get much more out of literature than those eleven words on their own; twelve if you count the title.


  1. Anonymous2:24 pm

    Just to let you know, the author of your nausea-inducing example was also terribly nauseous while writing all that stuff, and also gave up her PhD studies for many of the same reasons.

  2. Anonymous10:14 pm

    actually, on reflection, it was more that i had to write my thesis in a way that didn't please me. the subject i wrote on was and remains interesting to me, but the process, which is what you are commenting on, is unpleasant. it is.

  3. Yes, I'm sorry for implying that your work is nauseating. I meant the sense of the scholarly apparatus pushing its way into the soft flesh of art.

    It was careless of me. Ironically, carelessness is something that blog writing tends toward because, unlike PhD theses, one is barely aware of an audience.

  4. Anonymous4:41 pm

    Reading: Images, Texts, Artefacts
    28 and 29 June 2007
    Title, aims and objectives
    The principal aim of this conference is to encourage doctoral researchers from across the humanities to consider how the concept of reading may come to bear on their own subjects of research. "Reading" here is intended to be interpreted in a wide sense, to include the reading of, e.g. images, buildings, inscriptions, theatre or dance performances or other creative productions as well as books and manuscripts. This approach both allows participation by students from many humanities disciplines and topics, and also provides a framework for interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation. Beyond this tangible ‘cross-fertilisation’ a secondary aim will be to foster skills and confidence in presentation and communication among postgraduates.

    The conference will attract doctoral students — both as speakers and delegates - from a variety of disciplines including Architecture, Cultural Studies, English, History, Journalism, Modern Languages, Music, Philosophy, Politics, Religious Studies and Welsh. We invite doctoral students in departments and institutions across Wales and the UK and overseas in order to foster institutional links between students. Examples of themes to be explored include reading paintings or buildings, or reading urban fabric/landscapes.

    Call for Papers
    Proposals for panels and papers are invited from PhD students across Wales, the UK and overseas. The deadline for proposals is 16 March 2007 and current panels include:

    Representations of Empire
    Readerships - the impact of audience
    Clothing and the Body
    Reading the Land - urban/rural environments and archaeology
    Reading the Media
    Reading the Past - history and new historicism in literature
    Reading Performance
    Listening & the Oral Tradition - Music and the spoken word
    Lost in Translation?
    Off the Page - including inscriptions and embroidery
    Between the Lines - for eg. reading paratexts, reading against critical/theoretical grain
    Reading the Hand - manuscripts
    Reading Gender
    To convene a panel or submit a paper, please send a 300-word abstract of the paper’s contribution to the conference theme (with the panel title in the subject line) to Papers should be 20 minutes maximum and proposals should include contact details and a brief biographical note.




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