Literary Research - Recherche Littéraire, Journal of the International Comparative Literature Association, Vol. 19 nos. 37-38, pp. 183-201, 2002 Marcel Bénabou


Alice : Where should I start ?

March Hare : Start at the beginning.

Mad Hatter : Yes, yes ! And when you come to the end stop !

[Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” 1954 ;


There are those who set out from the

blank page and those rarer persons who end up there.

Bénabou : “Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books,” 1998]


Coming across books such as Marcel Bénabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, one is challenged by the question of reading that poses itself as a question of beginning. Where does one begin the reading, when the first glance at the title gets fixated on the x’es, on the writing sous rature that is also part of the title : “Why I Have Not Written xxxxxxx Any of My Books xxxxxxxxxxxxxx.” One begins to count : first 7 x’es, then 14. One begins to pay attention to the form. The title seems to answer a question supposedly nobody asked, but the author. Marcel Bénabou’s name appears to be part of the title as well : the same typeface, no distinction, no space. Thus we have three instances in one : the implied question, the erasure, the name. Moreover, these three seem to follow another set of threes for strategies of signification : constative, expressive, performative, to finally culminate in the poetic. But there is a twist : the question as a constative explanation describes ‘in extensis’ the idiom, “what you see is what you get”… only later. With a title like that one wonders : if the book written by Bénabou is, according to the claim, not written by Bénabou, then the apologetic answer to the imaginary question must be independent of the title’s frame of reference and prior to whatever the title might signify ‘inside’ the book – without reference it would be meaningless.


The erasure in the title extends the expressive to formulating yet another descriptive reference. By naming his book in an odd, Bénabou paradoxically extends the performative statement, “this is not a book” – [end page 183] given that one already is holding it in one’s hand – to focus not just upon the very act of naming and the ‘nothing’ under erasure, but also upon the naming of the question of authorship.


Hypothetical authorship, such as Bénabou’s, is a constructed conceptual form on two accounts : exterior to the written and figurative elements that compose it, and analogous to the split and drifting space of a conceptual unity. The poetic culminates in the writing of fragments that allude to a content previously expressed, yet much recycled. One is reminded here of Mark Taylor’s essay which bears the title of what it also addresses, namely “How to do Nothing with Words” in his book Tears, where he states : “Old ideas and symbols do not change significantly but return only to be suspended between quotation marks”[1] (Taylor, 1990 : 213).


Bénabou’s title is in other words doubly belated and shares at least one characteristic of the epigram : to thematize the very form that encompasses it. What it points to is the instance of form as content given in the implicit epigram as the very basis on which Bénabou’s (non)book can be said to exist. Thus isolated by Bénabou himself, the title exhibits a concern with what constitutes singular writing that posits the question of multiple authorships. My own concern is to place the title in relation to the tour de force by which one manages to give fictive existence to books that do not really exist, thereby giving real existence to the book that deals with those fictitious books. This is in fact an act of re-doubling meta-fiction. As Bénabou presents us with a philosophy of reading theoretically, the question of authorship is directly related to empowering the author with authority to the point where the author’s text itself carries forward and structures its own system and meaning.


Here, my claim is that reading for the epigram instead of the plot discloses the ontology of the literary work as it presents itself in the form of a ‘nonbook’ which itself challenges the author’s respective (dis)claim to authenticity. Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is concerned with beginnings, with stagings. Bénabou’s text begins with the title, but the title implies that nothing begins. Consequently, the work presents itself suspended between quotation marks. The beginning is represented as a failure to begin. Repeatedly referring to and returning to the importance of writing the first sentence, Bénabou sets up the frame for posing questions such as : where exactly does the first sentence happen, so to speak ? Is it the title, is it the epigraph, the one written by Bénabou, his narrator, or the protagonist ?


“In the beginning a short sentence.” It is in this short and blunt manner that Marcel Bénabou informs his imaginary reader of the significance of writing the imperative. Before one begins then, one has to be taken [end page 184] through the paratext : the title, dedication, epigraph, preface to the reader, fragments of fragments. Throughout, the concern is with the idea of opening a work and the difficulty of writing the first sentence. In other words, before one begins one concludes : what Bénabou is interested in is how to make fragments relational via the mediating power of the first sentence. This means that the book never crosses the threshold of a paratext, but always posits the reader in the beginning, stuck with the title. The fact that the book ends, however, creates a moment that exceeds the title’s performativity.


The question is then : what are the possible variations on where a narrative might begin ? Given this frame of reference, the first impulse could easily dictate that reading began with the last sentence in the book, which is yet another fragment, the last epigraph out of many : “In truth I know not what must be wondered at more : the great goodness of the men who welcome such poor essays, or my incredible confidence in casting such foolishnesses into the world. – Maurice de Guérin, The Green Notebook” (Bénabou, 1998 : 109). And this is how reading, paying no attention to form, comes as a reward. One is reminded of Bénabou’s Oulipian practice to conceive combinatorial systems of the type “Take the A and leave the B” so one can enjoy oneself over one’s own hand-made aphorism : take the epigraph and leave the autograph.[2]


Yet, another question can be raised at this point : how does authorial representation negate its own disclaiming ? Could it be said that such a particular form of epigram as exemplified in Bénabou is representative of the kind of performative writing that has its parallel in the idea of mise-en-scène ? Putting the writer on stage is for Bénabou a tripartite relation between representing the question of writing, the necessity of erasure, and the compelling force of the name.

Kenotic strategies


The kenosis, the voiding out, emptying, or the breaking is spun out of the performance that fragments engage in : as an aphorism, the fragment is not a mere paraphrasing ; as an epigram the fragment is a performance of a paraphrase ; as an epigraph, or dedication the fragment performs itself ; as an emblem or quotation the fragment performs other contexts. If the fragment does what it says it does, then the aesthetics of kenosis becomes a theory in its own right.


The discourse about the fragment always tends to go against the fragment’s ‘intent’ inherent in the deliberate refusal to display conclusions ; that is, if the discourse on the fragment is not fragmentary itself, then it must be meta-discourse. Thus the kenosis as a background for the [end page 185] discourse on the fragment will acquire the status of an event in relation to the aesthetics under consideration. In relation to the duality motif of the visual and of writing, which fragments exhibit at the level of form, the aesthetics of kenosis has a unique attribute. It involves at once a process of voiding out – internally the kenosis clears the system in which the fragments appear of the fragments themselves – and a process of gathering together the fragments which, internally again, cannot escape obeying the law of the system that contains and explains them.


The aesthetics of kenosis involves none other than an interpretative process which tries to connect fragments together, as may be the case with epigrams and epigraphs for instance, in order to force the understanding of something void and incomplete in the direction of a paradigm of understanding that is based on finding significance where there is none. Such connected fragments are decipherable only when they return to a context, yet this context is suspended between quotation marks. Inasmuch as, visually, the fragment looks like a ruin, a detachment, a residue or a remainder, independent of the authorial intent, writerly, the fragment takes on forms defined according to authorial intent and thus must conform to the law that represents it, if it is to be located in an aesthetic discourse or aesthetic program at all. Reading aphorisms, for instance, means reading fragments independently of the context of reading such a book. Yet reading nevertheless amounts to and complements the reading of a book of aphorisms if it is thus presented.


The aesthetics of kenosis does not only mean determining when a fragment is significant, but when significance is both transcendent and immanent within the structure of the fragment : when it is indecipherable, contextless, snatched, ambiguous, mobile, intertextual, paratextual, genetic, complete, incomplete, romantic, ekphrastic, epigrammatic, epigraphic, emblematic, epitaphic, unfinished, detached, disjointed, deserted, ruinous… ad frangeram. The question is then : is the aesthetic of the fragment compatible with the effect that the fragment produces as an event ?


Bénabou’s nonbook as an event of the fragment


The event that exceeds performativity is alogical. When we read in the first lines, such as Bénabou’s : “First lines of books are always most important” (7), or Edmond Jabès’: “Mark the first page of the book with a red marker” (Jabès, 1972 : 13), we equate the inception of the book with the its very consistency, despite any such declarations and advice which, in effect, render the first line of the text a space of suspension. While one begins the reading of the book, one is still waiting for the book to begin. [end page 186]


As the space of negotiation shifts between the author and the reader, between the programme the author sets forth and the form of its representation, between the reader and his expectations, the book becomes a book of paratexts. Unlike Jabès, for whom most of the writers he engages in dialogue with remain silent – except for the parts in which those whose sayings quoted in the epigraphs are also the characters in the book – Bénabou creates a reader who directly participates in the discourse with his/her own comments, objections and anticipations. This reader can be found at all levels of the paratext ; s/he can easily be one of the writers Bénabou cites in his epigraphs, one who thus contextualizes one’s discourse loudly, so to speak. Here is an example : after the first epi-graph and the address “To The Reader,” in which we are told about the first sentence, comes another page bearing a title called “Title” and an epi-graph which reads : “The book is the amplified object of the title, or the am-plified title. The text of the book begins with the explication of the title, and so forth. – Novalis” (Bénabou, 1998 : 11). Novalis is voicing the reader’s thoughts on the significance and oddity of Bénabou’s title. In this sense, the ownership of the text is abolished, once it becomes a fragment in the reader’s hands. It is the act of succession of places, from author to reader, that opens up the space in which both author and reader emerge not as merely dealers with questions of representation but themselves represent-tations of the paratexts that make effective their mutual interaction.


The event that exceeds performativity is given in the author’s and reader’s recognition of a suspended transition in ‘quotation marks.’ This transition can be identified as the aesthetic of kenosis, which involves a move from authenticating to inauthenticating the work of art or writing. Consequently, performing the act of attributing (that is, naming) one’s book to another’s results in the event of producing the ‘nothing’ under erasure for which the function of the achieved poetic level – beyond the constative – becomes a fragmentary intent yet suspended. The question is then, whether the fragment can be regarded as a disembodied text ?


The suspension of the fragment in the author’s negation


If the negation of negation yields to, or becomes a positive affirmation, what logic is (in) the logic of Bénabou’s paradoxical image of a book that attempts to explain its reasons for non-existing – in the sense of not having been written by him ? The writer who claims not to have written any of his books, including the book bearing that title itself, is obviously engaged in creating a scene of representation that, paradoxically, accommodates the absence of the author too, while at the same time authorizing the authenticity of the nonbook. [end page 187]


One of the themes in the book deals with responding to the question that Bénabou’s imaginary reader poses regarding the commencement of writing. The targeted effect is to make the reader of the reader read (into) the moment of writing itself, a moment that is still to be waited for and, for that matter, endlessly deferred. This is also the reason why the book not only is written more or less in fragments, but tries to explicate the notion of a fragment and its necessary integration into the creation of the book. Moreover, this imaginary reader with whom Bénabou enters into dialogue, and who is also a necessary figure for the book, while observing the author’s writing methods, amplifies the idea that textual experience and the writing of discourse are but some hypothetical forms of representation. In telling the reader about the circumstantial variations that contributed to his becoming a writer, Bénabou declares that contrary to all expectations, he preferred to wait, that is with the beginning of writing (54). Doubling the writing by superimposing fragments upon fragments, the author creates a mirage of prefatory writing in order to fill the space of that writing which never happens, or to substitute for the nothingness that Bénabou has to account for, according to some set of expectations.


Don’t you go believing, reader, that the books I haven’t written are pure nothingness. Quite the contrary (let it be said once and for all), they are as if suspended in the literary universe. They exist in libraries by word, by groups of words, by entire sentences in certain cases. But they are surrounded by so much empty filler and trapped in such an overabundance of printed matter that I myself, truth be told, have not yet succeeded, despite my best efforts, in isolating them and putting them together. Indeed, the world seems to me to be full of plagiarists, which makes my work a lengthy tracking down, an obstinate search for all those little fragments inexplicably snatched away from my future books. (43)


Bénabou’s exposition of the desire to capture the fragments, catalogue them, name them, with the purpose of finally achieving a coherent whole, as he states elsewhere, asks for writing precisely on and when the fragments escape grasping. The fragments enter a scene where they create a representation of their own disorder, while at the same time rearranging this disorder according to the discontinuity prompted by the claim to wholeness. The fragments then revolve around an absence, and this is what confers Bénabou’s writing a hypothetical form.


Visually, the fragment is transcendent as it remains outside, and absent from the process that represents it – it belongs to the future books – while writerly, the fragment is immanent as it remains within the system [end page 188] that re-produces all the future books as the fragments which Bénabou is engaged in tracking down. In this sense, the fragment acquires a body of its own which stands in a continuously specular relation to the performance that produces it and whose context changes, all according to the stimulation it provides for interpretation. While the book cannot be pursued for its dynamism of authorship, the book of fragments, or the fragments forming a book, exhibit a simultaneous force of breaking and repeating what has already been said, thus enacting the question of authority but only as a hypothetical form. The dialogue between the idea of writing the book and reading the nonbook is only a frame of a fragment, which has embodied a text in suspension. But whose text, snatched from what context ?


Questions of complementarity


The question here is, how does one represent hypothetical forms, and what is the aesthetic value of a hypothesis apart from its bearing of the possibility of antithesis ? The most striking trait in fragmentary writing is the representation of non-sense, or the nothingness in the text, in Bénabou’s case in the form of a ploughing metaphor. Ploughing through the fragments also means cultivating them, to the point where non-sense begins to emerge as an elaborate structure, which by virtue of its being non-sensical unfolds itself in the form of a question. The question of not writing the book is performed in the dictum “ceci n’est pas un livre” (16). In this way, Bénabou sets up the program for his text : the text as fragment but still claiming to represent the whole. The reader writes the allegory of his position vis-à-vis the fragment, and the fragment subordinates itself first to the role that is attributed to it by both the author and the reader, and, second, to an identification process with a textuality that further subordinates itself to the original text (if any) or whole. This supposedly whole text coincides with Bénabou’s unfailing statement : “For it is true that, much as I have only written inconclusive fragments, I have never ceased to take myself for a maker of literature” (28). What resonates however is still ‘ceci n’est pas un livre’ which turns the making of literature into a residue of the fragment. Authenticity of literary origin, literary use, and literary experience is then based on the hypothetical form of the fragment as the possibility of creating the unavoidable space of inauthenticity that gets to be authenticated. In other words, the gap between writing the book and not writing the book by writing that you have never written any of the books, including this book, creates a critical stance which leads to resisting the hypothetical moment. As Bénabou says : [end page 189]


[A]t that very moment when one thinks the author is going around in circles, he is in fact moving in a spiral. For it is one of his characteristic traits never to consider himself satisfied, to be incapable of stopping, incapable of fixing himself in a posture that he would present as definitive. As for the changing result of his explorations, you are free, reader, to see in it only random reconstructions, belated rationalizations, having no relation with the primeval disorder of things. (40)


What is the function of such writing apart form its aesthetic dimension ? Of course, apart from any other dimensions, the function of such writing is also to express a poetics. “In the beginning, a short sentence” (21), heralds Bénabou after another series of epigraphs to the section “First page” which follows the one called “Title.” But before we go into details with the epigrammatic form and content of the book, it’s worth mentioning here the specific structure the book is unfolding, a structure already discussed by Warren Motte in his preface : “Why I have not prefaced any of Marcel Bénabou’s Books.” Referring to the Oulipian style to carefully construe playful structures, Motte, himself a member of Oulipo, points to the occurrence of the number three in the book’s tripartite style : “There are three sections, each containing three further divisions, the first and the last paragraphs contain three sentences, and so forth. Bénabou uses three types of discourse : narrative, dialogue, and ‘borrowed’ language (quotation, allusion, pastiche); each major theme is treated thrice, once in each discursive mode” (x).


Now, what hovers under the surface of each theme – confessing, writing, reading – is the constant question of what to do with the fragments. In Bénabou’s scheme the fragments one reads go back to the book Bénabou does not want to write, thinking that one merely ends up repeating the great works of such writers as Racine, Diderot, Hölderlin, Proust, Sartre, Mallarmé, Gide, Artaud, and a host of others. “I made my first assignment finding for these fragments a new classification system, for I have not lost the desire finally to achieve a coherent whole” (33), Bénabou declares almost desperately in search for the ideal book that would contain them. The territory of the epigram is entered : if you can’t beat the fragments, join them. Bénabou’s shifting narrative voices engage in a game of repetition and endless permutations. Whereas the master rhetorician desires a return to “portraits,” “gnomic poetry,” “aphoristic language,” “epigrams,” “provocative maximes,” in other words a return to the short sentence, the apprentice rhetorician desires a return to “myth,” “mysterious extensions,” “dissolving places,” in short a return to the long [end page 190] sentence. These two positions, one systematic and the other non-systematic, face failure, however, as neither of them can bring the work to closure.


What exceeds performativity in this sense is the recourse to that inherent ingenuity which would manifest itself both as original and non-original thought. Therefore the ideal book for Bénabou is “the book about nothing,” “a book that would allow itself none of the facile effects of mise en abyme and specular games” (26). In other words, the fragments must be contained, hidden, somewhere in the first sentence, the sentence that is most likely to seduce the reader, so that the reader forgets he has already read such a first sentence somewhere else. Deliberately avoiding the mise-en-abyme of what Bénabou, throughout the entire book, calls “borrowed fragments,” “inconclusive fragments,” “disjointed fragments,” or “fragments written in a single spurt” – of which he is more than suspicious –, what he then calls “new fragments”, “little fragments,” and “fleeting fragments of eternity” must find their container in what constitutes the staging of the book, its setting, its representation, its mise-en-scène. Indeed, as Motte put it :


[W]hat are we reading after all ? He tells us twice, echoing Diderot and Magritte, and shamelessly indulging his taste for paradox, ceci n’est pas un livre ; although he admits that it might closely resemble a book, he still maintains that it is a ‘nonbook’. But – Hell’s bells ! – let’s get real here. It is a book. Hath it not a binding ? Hath it not pages, parts, introduction, conclusion ? If you spill coffee on it, does it not stain ? If you lend it to your brother-in-law, shall he not fail to return it ? If you assign it to your undergraduates, shall they not neglect to read the preface ? (xvi)


Although I agree with the above questions, Motte seems to be missing the point. In fact Bénabou has managed to write his ‘nonbook,’ just as Magritte managed to represent a representation. They performed the staging of representation, via justifying the performance. What is at work is the principle of complementarity : that the book is still waiting to be written, or that the representation is still waiting to be represented, is given in the mobile form of imperatives such as “make it short,” “strip the writing naked.” While the space of writing is a representation of the typographic space of the book, the space of reading is the reintegration of the space of the marginal justification for writing the book into the very disclaiming or negating the actual performance, that is, of not writing the book. The claim for the opposite emerges : if it is not the writing of the nonbook, then it [end page 191] must be its representation. The order of representation then is established in its relation to some concordances with what realizes the structure of representation.


The way Bénabou tells the story about snatched fragments enacts the representation of these fragments by postponing the proper story. It is not incidental that we are given biographical details regarding precisely what content a book must contain and be composed of, after we have been reading about precisely what form a book should assume in order for it to be a book and not merely a fragment. That is, the writing of the book begins for Bénabou with the enunciation of the form of each section that constitutes the book, such as “Title,” “First page,” “Proper Usage,” “Word Order,” “Last Word,” to name but a few. This enunciation in fact complements the suspended narrative of the very same sections. What Bénabou creates is a tempus that is neither past nor present, in which the self-referential sections of the book are able to enter a dialogue that is narratable, yet only as fragments, and only in suspension or quotation marks which are ultimately positioned as “future fragments,” as coincidentia oppositorum. All first lines are governed by the forced narrative voice in the master first line which reads, again : “First lines of books are always the most important.” The catch is the counterpoint : the first line that commands “In the beginning, a short sentence” functions as the master epigram.


Bénabou places the fragment in the middle of the writing enterprise to concord with the framework of what he thinks is the beginning and ending of a whole text. In this sense, what is marked is the textuality of the fragment not as a disembodied text, but as an embodiment of the nonbook.


For example, in Bénabou’s case, the tripartite style has yet another function : questions of reading, writing, representing, become the personification of the position of being both ‘himself and nothing.’ “I began telling myself that I was a pretty good embodiment of that absurd character (created, I believe, by Pascal’s imagination) who grieved over not having three eyes” (65), says Bénabou, indirectly implying that if one does not distinguish between the book and the nonbook with one’s third eye, the three questions of reading, writing, and representing will stay unanswered. Therefore, a first line which reads : “First lines of books are always the most important” can also be identified with an epigrammatic wit. Of the three questions however, only writing is given a definition in epigrammatic rhetorical form : “what is writing other than drawing two letters and laughing ?” (60) Since this is similar to Bénabou’s discourse which takes place in parentheses whenever ‘nothing’ is expressed – parentheses being in fact justifications for going always behind the [end page 192] argument, that is, “behind the scenes” (55) – one might further ask : is the epigram an expression of that nothing which is not nothingness, but a suspension, or that nothing which is not a consequence, but a state ?


The epigrammatic fragment


In his review article, “A brief for the epigram,” beginning with a statement on “the niggling problem of nomenclature. Epitaph, epigraph, epigram,” David Barber defines the latter’s properties in a tirade :


Epigrams are short. They are skimpy. They are slight. They do not soar and neither do they swing. If they profess love, they admit impediment ; if they assail fate, they keep it snappy. The most exemplary epigrams are often supremely sour or bitter, holding a special appeal to the disillusioned and the disgruntled. Epigrams are short. They are spare. They are astringent. Not uncommonly, they are snide. As a rule, they are glancing and knowing. They like to catch the reader out. They can be touching, but they prefer to break the skin before we know it, like mosquito bites and paper cuts. Epigrams are stripped-down. They are sawed-off. They are stingy. They are short. (Barber, 1999 : 6)


The point of the epigram is to be found in its form, or rather in its performativeness. As “they like to catch the reader,” epigrams create the possibility of ‘be-getting’ interpretation. The short form of the epigram structures wit and wit transforms the structure. In its form then, the epigram yields to performing interpretation. Barber writes that “the epigram means to be ‘gotten’” (6), which has implications for the way the epigram is received. As it harbours what Barber calls “airtight conclusiveness,” the epigram is not only “to be gotten,” but it constitutes a categorical agreement with directness. As such, the epigram acts as an agent.


In addition to Barber’s account of the epigram as the genere non grato in the literary canon, I would say that the reason why the epigram has been if not excluded, then second-rated, is also due to the fact that its valorization was left at the mercy of the taste makers of different periods. While Barber’s historical overview spans from Martial’s epigrams of the Roman empire – a period which, as Barber points out, is deemed by the classicists as climactic in the development of the epigram – to the “post-everything epoch” – the period which enjoys the style of the same Martial, only this time “out of the closet” (23) – I would say that the rejection of the epigram, in all times, has less to do with the fear of contextualizing or [end page 193] anchoring irony in the political satire. Rather, the epigram as a cleverly put metaphor displays the kind of wit, which by virtue of its form escapes final theorizing. It was therefore considered superfluous and immoral.


The inaccessible origin of how knowledge presents itself, yet made present in the epigram, deconstitutes the form in which wit nevertheless becomes constitutive of the power of imagination. In other words, wit presents itself in fragments of constitutive knowledge of an interval between origin and representation. This interval is filled by the “glancing and knowing” epigram, which confers on wit its dual force : wit is simultaneously always ahead of its time, yet behind its origin. By virtue of its form, wit is short yet direct, venomous yet humorous, banal yet deep, fleeting yet substantiating. Resistance to wit, then, meant resistance to the epigram, resistance to the interval that does not explain its temporality.


The short form of expression marks wit as an inscription of what is hidden yet revealing. The reason why the epigram is considered second-rate is because it deals with such above mentioned oppositions that were deemed both decadent and extravagant. Take the example of the metaphysical poets. When John Dryden decided that John Donne’s preference for the compact form, for contractions of sense and thought, merely displayed juxtaposed things that did not belong together thus generating nothing but the expression of banal statements in a complicated way, the poet was excluded from the canon. Samuel Johnson’s attack on the metaphysical poets came to define wit in that rapport : “But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors ; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit thus defined, they have more than enough” (Johnson in Abrams et al., 1993 : 2404/5). Moreover, when Dryden in his “Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (1665) refers to Martial, the form of the epigram is invoked as if it were the source of all subsequent bad poetry – the metaphysical poem being an example thereof. By accusing John Cleveland of abusing legitimate figures of speech, and John Donne of abusing metaphysics via philosophical speculations, Dryden sets the norm for recognizing a bad poet :


[H]e creeps along with ten little words in every line, and helps out his numbers with for to, and unto, and all the pretty expletives he can find, till he drags them to the end of another line ; while the sense is left tired halfway behind it : he doubly starves all his verses, first for want of thought, and then of expression ; his poetry neither has wit in it, nor seems to have it ; like him in Martial : ‘Pauper videri Cinna vult, et est pauper’ [Cinna wishes to seem [end page 194] poor, and is poor’, Epigrams 8.19] … But to do this always, and never be able to write a line without it, though it may be admired by some few pedants, will not pass upon those who know that wit is best conveyed to us in the most easy language ; and it is most to be admired when a great thought comes dressed in words so commonly received that it is understood by the meanest apprehensions, as the best meat is the most easily digested : but we cannot read a verse of Cleveland’s without making a face at it, as if every word were a pill to swallow : he gives us many times a hard nut to break our teeth, without a kernel for our pains. So that there is this difference betwixt his satires and Doctor Donne’s ; that the one gives us deep thoughts in common language, though rough cadence ; the other gives us common thoughts in abstruse words. (Dryden in Abrams et al. 1993 : 1838, 1840)


Donne was rediscovered in the 20th century and soon admitted in the canon.[3] Cleveland never did. However, critics who hated wit as did Dryden and Johnson contributed paradoxically to the development of the epigrammatic form from epitaphs and other elegiac inscriptions to the “post-everything” form which came to be specifically significant for its performativity. Such speculations that the preference for the short form of literary expression was caused by the impossibility to write long and sustained arguments, were finally transformed into justifications for the image of wit as constructed neither by the poet, nor by the critic, but by language itself, the only one to turn common things or banalities into fascinating phenomena. In fact, constructing an image for wit has been a main preoccupation especially among Jesuits, and it is very likely that Dryden had knowledge of treatises written on wit around the time he himself converted to Catholicism in 1686.


Arturo Zárate Ruiz argues in his study Gracián, Wit, and the Baroque Age that the very specific problem with defining Martial’s popular wit and placing him in relation to other Latin writers in the Catholic teaching canon led the Jesuits to developing theories on wit. As Zárate Ruiz notes, following Alexander A. Parker, the fact that all studies on wit developed as commentaries on Martial gave rise to the concern with addressing wit in general that was not necessarily based on a collection of epigrams. Starting with Casimir Sarbiewski (1627) who first posed the problem of the lack in sustained studies on wit, many others soon followed : notably Matteo Pellegrini (1639), Baltasar Gracián (1642), Pietro Sforza Pallavicino (1646), and Emanuele Tesauro (1654)[4] (Zárate Ruiz, 1996 : 56-7). [end page 195]


Although my concern here is not the historical context – how we organize and validate ideas of knowledge in relation to ideas of imagination ? – it is worth mentioning that imagination presented itself also as the possibility to include error and nonsense, something knowledge in its ‘essence’ was not supposed to incorporate. It may be for this reason that scholars trained in rhetoric had the tendency to ‘measure’ metaphor : if it was too “extended” – linking unlike things – then its analogical value would be too ‘intended,’ so to speak. Interestingly enough, critics like Pellegrino and Dryden who advocated for simple and clear language, contributed to the realization that analogy and the force of the connective in an extended metaphor expanded into the realm that was reserved exclusively to the study of how the mind reflected the world. More precisely, while Dryden’s views were against the use of extended metaphors not in the sense of the metaphor being extended conceptually but in its joining together of opposites, the gist of his criticism nevertheless paralleled the old preoccupation with the dichotomy between the coincidence of opposites and the unity of opposites. Perceptive writers such as Condillac – à la Derrida – would later (in his Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge of 1746) pin metaphysics to the extended board of imagination as the generator for the ‘first’ idea, the “force” that presents itself analogous to knowledge : “we say the force of a thought, an expression, an argument, a discourse ; but analogy enlightens us on these examples and on all the others” (Condillac in Derrida, 1980 : 75). Again, the extended form of a metaphor, especially as developed by the metaphysical poets, presented itself as the productive force “called imagination,” as Derrida has it, thus introducing in language, what I would call justified ambiguity.[5] Further, equating wit with a shorter form of language, representation led to the fragmentary writing claiming to produce a whole content. In juxtaposition, one may infer that the short, compressed, and detached form of the fragment, as Montaigne develops it in his essays, parallels the concern with placing and defining epigrammatic writing that does not contradict or deny the context which generates it. Just as the notion of the fragment evokes a previously existing whole which determines and includes it,[6] so the very notion of the epigram cannot be thought of without the corresponding notion of generality that makes specific either its ‘abstruse’ or ‘common’ words. In other words, the best way to think of the epigram is perhaps in terms of ut pictura poesis – poetry is painting that speaks and painting is mute poetry (Horace) – which in paraphrase would mean that while verse portrays the speaking wit, wit remains a silent repartee.


When Montaigne quotes Martial, “[h]e had less need to strive after originality, its place had been taken by his matter,” he aligns the epigram [end page 196] with the writing of non-linear lines (despite the visual effect which may have it linear) whose interpretation yields to deciphering, rather than evaluating the way in which deep thoughts are represented in common language and common thoughts are implied in abstruse words. In such a figurative structure, the perspectival effect is to render banalities as emblems of far wittier things than common or abstruse words can represent if taken as ideas. Metaleptically, Montaigne would simply tell belated critics like Dryden and Johnson (also poets themselves) that :


Those earlier poets achieve their effects without getting excited and goading themselves on ; they find laughter everywhere : they do not have to go and tickle themselves ! The later ones need extraneous help : the less spirit they have, the more body they need. They get up on their horses because they cannot stand on their own legs.… Just as some excellent clowns whom I have seen are able to give us all the delight which can be drawn from their art while wearing their everyday clothes, whereas to put us in a laughing mood their apprentices and those who are less deeply learned in that art have to put flour on their faces, dress up in funny clothes and hide behind silly movements and grimaces. (Montaigne, 1991 : 462-3)


The right to express banalities does not belong to the common. The shorter the form the more developed the content. If we take the epigram to be a kind of a paradigmatic text which refutes interpretation while conflating the idea of and the question of interpreting itself, then what the epigram puts forth is an image to be read catachretically. Thus, the epigram produces a mise-en-abyme in which wit has the vantage point of applying to itself the value of “airtight conclusiveness.”


The mise-en-scène of mise-en-abîme


Returning to Marcel Bénabou, the invocation of a book as the ideal book “from which any kind of mirror would be banished” works implicitly for what the book proposes in its overall structure : a book that goes beyond mere reflections on writing, a book whose fragmentary form dissolves into intertextual references only to increase the authority of the “borrowed fragments” above the authority exercised by the one engaged in “sign[ing] oneself over to writing” (Bénabou, 1998 : 78). While Bénabou hides away the mirrors from the book, the reader glimpses himself in the interrupted reflection the mirrors nevertheless leave behind as a trace. The unfinished is integrally expressed in epigrammatic form with regular faithfulness in all [end page 197] last paragraphs of each section of the book. “I imagine ways of reducing a text the way one reduces a sauce” (82), says Bénabou, thus characterizing the aesthetic effect the short form has on the reader, who at that point already suffers from textual bulimia. Further he explains : “For me, an aphorism, provided it is well constructed, is an advantageous replacement for a philosophical elaboration” (82), indicating that his preference for the aphorism to the fragment, is due to recognizing unity and wholeness in the first, while denying the latter anchorage in the unfinished. The fragment is fleeting and therefore impossible to “construe well.” But however much Bénabou praises the aphorism, the fragment is still the form that intrigues him.


Thus, the fragment is a problem Bénabou continually runs up against. The whole book is left unfinished, it is a fragment which contains only the first sentence, one can contend. Following the first sentence are only the fragments which had been snatched away from him, his “future” fragments he wants to both collect and write himself. But these fragments have a clearly performative function : they mark the interval to be filled by the epigrammatic form. It is also here, in this interval between origin and representation that Bénabou’s first sentence produces the mise-en-abyme, which further reflects beyond the aphorism and goes back to the form the aphorism is derived from, that of the epigram whose textuality has been less successfully recognized.


The epigram is different from the aphorism. While the epigram continually undergoes a ‘Mallarmization’ – Mallarmé once said that a poem is not made by ideas but by words – the aphorism is the work of grounding form and content in self-consciousness : its ability to replace philosophical elaboration is obtained by virtue of its ability to reflect the author’s image. The aphorism then creates an interval, a pause, a plane of reflection ; the epigram creates a task, a discourse, a perspective.


Concluding on the writing of a book that has not been written by its author is a process of returning to the book’s paratext, its title and its epigraph. Indeed, for Bénabou, the question of authorship validates its authenticity not in the totality of the fragments as exempla, but in the connectivity of the fragments as thresholds, neither here nor there, which calls forth the condition under which the writing can be read as nothing. Bénabou’s dream to write a book about nothing merely symbolizes the writer’s desire to cross over the threshold and understand what the reader might understand. For Bénabou, the whole mystery of writing lies in opening the door for a reader, and letting him read that the writing of nothing is the writing on the wall which returns as an old symbol to take its place among the suspended fragments in quotation marks. Bénabou’s authorial authority is not transmitted but staged. Therefore the link [end page 198] between the title proper, the part under erasure, and the name appears as a registering of a signature that goes beyond the mere transmission of authorial intent. It becomes a detail in anticipating the reader’s involvement in narrative participation. But then again, the book is not narratorial in a traditional sense ; it is an enunciation of the book’s fragments as the condition of the possibility of fragmentary performativity.


In turn, performativity is the condition of the possibility of a fragmentary event. It is on this basis that the writing of nothing inscribes itself within a paradigm for experiencing the fragment as hermeneutic, epiphanic, and metaphysical reading. The wisdom of the nonbook is the wisdom of the epigram.